When he gets his breath back Hod sits up to see where he's landed. There are eagles, not so noble-looking as the ones that spread their wings on the coins and bills of the nation, eagles skulking on the riverbank, eagles thick in the trees back from the mudflats. He has never seen a live one before.
"They'll get into your sowbelly, you leave it out in the open," says the leathery one-eyed Indian who squats by his load.
"I don't plan to."
"Better get a move on, then. That tide don't stay where it is."
The man introduces himself as Joe Raven and is something called a Tlingit and there is no bargaining with him.
"Twelve cents a pound. Healy and Wilson charge you twice that. Be two hundred fifty to pack this whole mess to the base of the Pass. We leave at first light."
It is already late in the season, no time to waste lugging supplies piecemeal from camp to camp when the lakes are near freezing and the goldfields will soon be picked over. All around them Indians and the scruffy-bearded local white men are auctioning their services off to the highest bidder. One stampeder runs frantically from group to group, shouting numbers, looking like he'll pop if he's not the first to get his stake off the beach.
"That's about all the money I got," says Hod.
The Tlingit winks his good eye and begins to pile Hod's goods onto a runnerless sledge. "Hauling this much grub, you won't starve right away." He tosses a stone at an eagle sidling close and it flaps off a few yards, croaking with annoyance, before settling onto the flats again.
"Eat on a dead dog, eat the eyes out of spawn fish, pick through horseshit if it's fresh. Lazy bastards." Joe Raven winks his single eye again. "Just like us Tlingits."
The Indian wakes him well before first light.
"Best get on the trail," he says, "before it jams up with people."
Hod rises stiffly, the night spent sleeping in fits out with his goods, laughter and cursing and a few gunshots drifting over from the jumble of raw wood shanties and smoke-grimed tents that have spread, scabies-like, a few hundred yards in from the riverbank.
"Any chance for breakfast in town?"
"The less you have to do with that mess," says Joe Raven, "the better off you be."
As they head out there are eagles still, filling the trees, sleeping.
The eight miles from Dyea to Canyon City is relatively flat but rough enough, Hod's outfit loaded on the backs of Joe's brothers and wives and cousins and grinning little nephews, a sly-eyed bunch who break out a greasy deck of cards whenever they pause to rest or to let Hod catch up. Fortunes, or at least the day's wages, pass back and forth with much ribbing in a language he can't catch the rhythm of. Hod struggles along with his own unbalanced load, clambering over felled trees and jagged boulders bigger than any he's ever seen, saving ten dollars and raising a crop of angry blisters on his feet as the trail winds through a narrow canyon, skirting the river then wandering away from it.
"Boots 'pear a tad big for you," says Joe Raven.
The way he has to cock his head to focus the one eye on you, Hod can't tell if the Indian is mocking him or not.
"Might be." He is trying not to limp, trying desperately to keep up.
"Don't worry. By tomorrow your feet'll swoll up to fill em."
Canyon City is only another junkheap of tents and baggage near a waterfall. Hod forks over two fresh-minted silver dollars for hot biscuits and a fried egg served on a plate not completely scraped clean of the last man's lunch while the Indians sit on their loads outside and chew on dried moose, taking up the cards again.
"Gamblingest sonsabitches I ever seen," says the grizzled packer sitting by him on the bench in the grub tent. "Worse than Chinamen."
"I'm paying twelve cents a pound," says Hod. The coffee is bitter but hot off the stovetop. "That fair?"
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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