Hod is the first on deck to see smoke.
"That must be it," he says, pointing ahead to where the mountains rise up and pinch together to close off the channel. "Dyea."
There is a rush then, stampeders running to the fore and jostling for position, climbing onto the bales of cargo lashed to the deck to see over the crush, herding at a rumor as they have since the Utopia pulled away from the cheering throngs in Seattle, panicked that someone else might get there first. Store clerks and farmers, teamsters and railroad hands, failed proprietors and adventurous college boys and scheming hucksters and not a few fellow refugees from the underground. Hod has done every donkey job to be had in a mine, timbering, mucking ore with shovel and cart, laying track, single-jacking shoot holes with a hand auger. He knows how to look for colors in a riverbank, knows what is likely worth the sweat of digging out and what isn't. But the look in the eyes of the men crowding him up the gangplank, the press of the hungry, goldstruck mass of them, five days jammed shoulder-to-shoulder at the rail of the steamer dodging hot cinders from the stack, half of them sick and feeding the fish or groaning below in their bunks as the other half watch the islands slide by and share rumors and warnings about a land none have ever set foot on - he understands that it will be luck and not skill that brings fortune in the North.
Though skill might keep you alive through the winter.
"Store clerk outta Missouri, wouldn't know a mineshaft from a hole in the ground, wanders off the trail to relieve himself? Stubs his toe on a nugget big as a turkey egg."
"You pay gold dust for whatever you need up there - won't take no paper money or stamped coin. Every night at closing they sweep the barroom floors, there's twenty, thirty dollars in gold they sift outta the sawdust."
"Canadian Mounties sittin up at the top of the Pass got a weigh station. It's a full ton of provisions, what they think should stand you for a year, or no dice. Couple ounces shy and them red-jacketed sonsabitches'll turn you back."
"Put a little whiskey in your canteen with the water so it don't freeze."
"Hell, put a little whiskey in your bloodstream so you don't freeze. Tee-totaller won't make it halfway through September in the Yukon."
"Indins up there been pacified a long time now. It's the wolves you need to steer clear of."
"The thing is, brother, if you can hit it and hold on to it, you float up into a whole nother world. Any time you pass an opera house west of the Rockies, the name on it belongs to another clueless pilgrim what stumbled on a jackpot. This Yukon is the last place on earth the game aint been rigged yet."
If the game isn't rigged in Dyea it is not for lack of trying. There is no dock at the mouth of the river, greenhorns shouting in protest as their provisions are dumped roughly onto lighters from the anchored steamer, shouting more as they leap or are shoved down from the deck to ferry in with the goods and shouting still to see them hurled from the lighters onto the mudflats that lead back to the raw little camp, deckhands heaving sacks and crates and bundles with no regard for ownership or fragility, and then every man for himself to haul his scattered outfit to higher ground before the seawater can ruin it.
"Fifty bucks I give you a hand with that," says a rum-reeking local with tobacco stain in his beard.
"Heard it was twenty." Hod with his arms full, one hand pressed to cover a tear in a sack of flour.
"Outgoing tide it's twenty. When she's rolling in like this - " the local grins, spits red juice onto the wet stones, " - well, it sorter follows the law of supply and demand." Hod takes a moment too long to consider and loses the porter to a huffing Swede who offers fifty-five. Left to his own, he hustles back and forth to build a small mountain of his food and gear on a hummock by a fresh-cut tree stump, crashing into other burdened stampeders in the mad scramble, gulls wheeling noisily overhead in the darkening sky, little channel waves licking his boots on the last trip then three dry steps before he collapses exhausted on his pile.
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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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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