An Alaska Gold Rush Christmas
“Let me tell you a tale that I swear is as true
as sourdough dumplings in caribou stew.
It’s the wintertime saga of Johnny Muldoon,
a drunk from the floor of a Talkeetna Saloon
who became, unexpected, a figure of fame
whose deed is remembered though rarely his name.
“It was back in the winter of Nineteen Twenty-Two
when snowdrifts were as deep as upended canoes.
Far to the north at the mouth of Sheep Creek
was a homestead buried in snow shoulder-deep,
where a man with his wife and a young lad of ten
were locked for the winter in a rough-hewn cabin.
“But a blast of the wind struck with such force
that it unpegged a shotgun from over the door
and that deadly contraption, loaded for bear,
spit out its lead not caring where
and bad luck was it to he who stood in its path
and that young lad of ten absorbed the whole blast.
“There is no storm too vile, no wind is too strong
to chill the love in one’s heart for what must be done.
Into that cold, the storm and the wind
drove a desperate father wrapped in bearskin.
Heading south to Talkeetna he guided his team
for the doctor to save his ten-year old dream.
“Now the curse of the winter at sixty below
is numbness in fingers and frostbitten toes
where the howl of the wolf and the blast of the wind
wears even the most seasoned of sourdoughs thin
for the freeze of the winter and mountains of snow
put the gentle north woods into a death throe.
“In Talkeetna the wagons had froze in their tracks
with no hope of movin’ ’til springtime came back.
Snow mountains had buried the forest so deep
that dogsleds were founderin’ and moved at a creep.
The pack on the streets was over the roofs
and Talkeetna was a forest of chimneys and soot.
“And the cold, oh the cold!!, it stabbed like a knife
through the cracks in the parkas and humor in wives.
The howl of the wind gnawed at the doors
blowing smoke down the chimney and snow up through the floors.
As small consolation, it was Christmas Eve
and the storm heading south was expected to ease.
“Now Johnny Muldoon, as was usually his case,
was hooched to the gills in Cavenaugh’s Place.
A braggart and moocher who smelled of bear grease
he had the air of a gander from a gaggle of geese
lost in the forest as winter sets in
stumbling the scrub brush and honking for friends.
“Johnny Muldoon was racing his age
and his years in the bush had taken their wage.
Alone on a trapline from November ’til June
can strip the most brazen sourdough’s tune
’til the hunger for humans burns like a fire
growing hotter each day as its flames mounted higher.
“He’d drink all his beer and then demand more
casting a sneer at each guest through the door.
The golden days of his life lay arrear
and his sour outlook laced the good cheer
like a vinegar dollop in a gallon of ale
which taints the first sip but not the wassail.
“When Johnny Muldoon had drunken his fill
He’d head for warm ground to sleep off the swill.
His pigeon-toed stumble traversed the saloon
‘cross juniper floorboards avoiding spittoons.
Aseat by the hearth with his head on his knees
he fell into a slumber scarce seeming to breathe.
“From the backroom off Cavenaugh’s bed
came streamers of orange, white, golden and red.
Spiraled together from hearth to the door
they were tacked into corners and draped to the floor.
The floorboards were swept, the glasses were cleaned
and storm lanterns were filled with fresh kerosene.
“Then frolicking people began to arrive,
in families of triplets, by fours and by fives,
’til Cavenaugh’s Place bubbled with cheer
(not to mention the gossip, courtin’ an’ beer)
as a sixteen foot spruce dug out of the snow
was covered with popcorn, candles and bows.
“The fiddles were tuned and the banjo was strummed
and vocal chords cleared and started to hum;
each person joined in with his own special key
singing ‘Joy to the World’ and ‘O! Christmas Tree.’
And the warmth of that crowd challenged the fire
as neighbor kissed neighbor and farmer hugged prior.
“With the room cleared for dancin’ the fiddles began
and young men and women paired off for the dance
while the old folks sat back suppressing their grins
and sideglancing those that might be next of kin.
The dancing was merry and the floorboards did shake
the planks of a boardwalk in a gentle earthquake.
“But then like the roar of a Hell-bound train
the front door flew open to Cavenaugh’s Place
and the bite of the wind shivered the crowd
as the snowflakes swept in like winter-blown clouds.
In the frame of the door was a man’s silhouette,
his clothes torn to shreds and his face frostbit red.
“His eyes, they were crazy, and his fingers they twitched,
(from shoulder to ankle his clothes had been pitched).
Snowballs were melting from off of his clothes.
His mustache was thawing and the white of his nose
made him appear as a winterland ghost
when the mercury hits sixty below.
“He lurched for the bar through the press of the mob
and, with a jigger of whiskey, he started to sob.
The tears trickled down his frostbitten cheeks
and the lump in his throat tortured his speech
but he planted his feet and pulled himself tall
with his face to the crowd and his back to the wall.
“‘My son’s loaded with buckshot from shoulder to wrist
an’ his temperature’s risin’ an’ givin’ him fits
and my wife, she’s a starvin’ just north of Sheep Creek
while I’ve battled this blizzard, its jowl to my cheek.
I’ve come south to Talkeetna for a doctor and aid
now I’ve got to get back for too long I’ve stayed.
“‘For three days I’ve stumbled about in that storm
wrapped in this bearskin a tryin’ to keep warm.
With the damn bite of winter a chewin’ my bones
I fear for the worst with my family alone.
So I’m beggin’ you folks to load up my team
give me fresh dogs and back north I’ll lean.’
“It was deathly silent throughout the room
and a pin on the floor would have hit with a boom
and that crowd gather ‘round — as did Johnny Muldoon —
not sure they were seein’ just what they presumed.
Then Cavenaugh offered his best team of dogs
and the doc offered drugs and medicinal grog.
“Within an hour the sled was piled high
and the tears of a Christmas filled that man’s eyes
for neighbor helps neighbor in this land of the North
and friendship is as precious as gold nuggets in quartz.
But when he started to mush out through the gate
Cavenaugh grabbed the father’s arm yelling “Wait!
“‘That trail is too long for a man to withstand
and the fangs of the wind have shredded your hands.
We’ll both take the trail north to Sheep Creek,
Now cover that frostbite and hear what I speak.
If your son’s still alive, which I hope is right,
he can easily last, sir, just one more night.
“Tomorrow when the storm had blown its way south
we’ll all leave together for Sheep Creek’s frozen mouth.
Come. Sit by the fire. Cure that frostbite.
We’ll leave before sunrise after spending the night.’
With a shrug of his shoulders the man expressed doubt
and as he went into Cavenaugh’s, a shadow slipped out.
“Then terror of terror the next morning came
and the howl of the storm increased as it ran
down from the north with a savage new breeze
leaving snowdrifts to the top of twenty-foot trees.
And Cavenaugh’s sled was lost in the storm
complete with the bacon and John Barleycorn.
“The father was stunned and stumbled in woe
but Cavenaugh still wouldn’t let that man go
for once out the door, the force of the blow
would bury him deep in the grip of the snow
and that man with a heavy heart did lament
and with heavy sobs the silence was rent.
“Three days down the road when the storm had swept past
Cavenaugh and two men moved north through the pass
then down Sheep Creek to the home near its mouth
with dogsleds of foodstuffs, blankets and doubt.
The men had a cross should aid be too late
and the snap of the winter seal yet one more fate.
“The blast of the wind had so bent the trees
that they seemed to be praying like men on their knees.
The treetops were stripped and the branches were bare
and grotesquely reaching to grasp the cold air.
The pant of the dogs and skid of the sleds
punctuated the silence ’til they reached the homestead.
“With a pound of his fist on the frozen spruce door
Cavenaugh held his breath, and, when it opened he swore.
The wife stood by the hearth with her son in a chair
spoonfeeding him soup from a bowl earthenware.
On the table behind her were foodstuffs piled high
complete with the bacon and Cavenaugh’s rye.
“It was Johnny Muldoon who had stolen the team
and gambled his life for the ten-year old dream
for on the floor of the cabin as stiff as a plank
lay Johnny Muldoon, his eyes starin’ blank.
Life is a dance of a medly of tunes
and paying the piper was Johnny Muldoon.
“An’ I tell yuy, cheechakos, I swear it’s as true
as sourdough dumplings in caribou stew.
It was Johnny Muldoon that saved that young lad
and I’ve got the scar here to prove it, I would like to add,
for Muldoon brought me help as I was a lyin’ near death
and gave up his life for an Alaskan Christmas.”
[You can find Steven Levi’s Alaska Gold Rush stories on Kindle.]