"You white fellers don't much trust each other, do you?" the Indian grins, then rousts his tribe of relatives with a whistle.
When Hod puts his outfit on the balance it is scant forty pounds.
"Sell you four sacks of cornmeal, twenty dollars," says one sharper loitering by the scales.
"Sell you this yere case of canned goods, beans and peas, for fifteen," says another.
"I got these rocks here," says a third. "You roll em in your bedding, slip em in with your flour and soda, Mounties won't take no notice. Good clean rocks, ten cent a pound."
"You aint that short, buddy," says another man, a stampeder from the look of him, pale yellow stubble on his face and pale eyes, one blue, one green, and pale skin made raw from the weather. "You can pick up twice that weight from what's been cast away on the trip up."
He says his name is Whitey, just Whitey, and that he's from Missouri and has been waiting here since yesterday, searching for a face he can trust.
"The deal with this Chilkoot," he says, "is you always got to have one man mindin the store while the other carries the next lot up, then you switch off. It's simple mathematics."
Whitey shows Hod his own pile, the same goods bought for the same double prices from the same outfitters in Seattle. "One load comes from your pile, then the next from mine. It don't matter who carries what, we both do the same amount of work and both get to spell ourselves at the top while the other climbs. It gets dark, one of us stays up there with what we've carried and the other down here with what's left. We'll get her done in half the time and won't be wore out for the rest of it."
It sounds good enough to Hod. They help each other load up, making packs with rope and canvas and tying on near seventy pounds apiece for the first trip.
"No matter how weary you get, don't step out of line to rest once you're on them Golden Stairs," says Whitey as they nudge their way into the crowd of men at the base of the footpath. "Takes a good long spell to squeeze back in."
They start up, Whitey climbing a half-dozen men above Hod. The blasting cold air and the hazardous footing and the weight on Hod's back drives all thought away, his whole life tunneling down to the bend of the knees of the man in front of him, left, now right, now left, thigh muscles knotting as he follows in step, keeping count at first, step after slippery step, then giving up when the idea of the thousands more ahead proves unbearable.
The first thing left by the stairs is a huge cook pot, iron rusted a different color on its uphill side, that looks to have been there some while. Then wooden boxes and crates, dozens of them, and who has the energy to stop and look inside as the wind cuts sharp across the face of the slope, and next it is men littering the sides of the line of climbers, some bent over with exhaustion or waiting for a moment's gap to rejoin the file, others splayed out on the mountain face with their heels dug in to keep from sliding, helpless as tipped turtles with their pack harnesses up around their necks, weeping.
This is where you earn it. Of course it is still a gamble, gathering all his life's toil into one stake and chasing after gold. But it isn't a weak man's play like laying it on poker or faro, hoping the numbers will smile on you and shun the rest at the table. The weak ones will falter here, only those with the strength, with the will to pull their burdens over this mountain and then down five hundred miles of raging, ice-choked river, will even get to roll their dice in the Yukon. For the first time since he was herded onto the steamer with the rest of the stampeders, Hod feels truly hopeful, long odds getting shorter with each busted, despairing pilgrim he passes.
I will stomp this mountain flat, he thinks, leaning into the slope and forcing himself not to look up when the trail curves enough to let him see past the men ahead to the distant summit. No use worrying about how far it still is. Afternoon sun and the friction of boots slick the icy gouges, stairs only in a manner of speaking, and though there is a rope you can grab on to it is ice-crusted and unreliable, the great mass above and behind jerking it one way or the other, and Hod vows on his next trip to get one of the alpenstocks they're selling at the bottom. His legs burn, then ache, then go to numb rubber and then suddenly it is over, teetering sideways to flop in the snow next to Whitey and a half-dozen others. Whitey is laughing and wheezing, pointing at the unbroken line of men and yes, a few women, that stretches all the way down Long Hill and ends in a black pool of those waiting to start the climb.
Excerpted from A Moment in the Sun by John Sayles. Copyright © 2011 by John Sayles. Excerpted by permission of McSweeneys Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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