The packer looks him over and Hod flushes, aware of just how new all his clothes are. "What's fair is whatever one fella is willin to pay and another is willin to do the job for at the moment," says the man, biscuit crumbs clinging to his stubble. "Three months ago that egg'd cost you five dollars. Just a matter of what you want and how bad you want it."
After Canyon City the trail starts to rise, Hod lagging farther behind the Tlingits and thinking seriously about what he might dump and come back for later. There are discarded goods marking both sides of the path, things people have decided they can survive without in the wilderness beyond, some with price tags still attached.
"We maybe pick these up on the way back," says Joe Raven, lagging to check on Hod's progress. "Sell em to the next boatload of greenhorns come in."
A small, legless piano lays in the crook of a bend in the trail, and Hod can't resist stopping to toe a couple muffled, forlorn notes with his boot.
"Man could haul that over far as Dawson and play it, be worth its weight in gold," says Joe, and then is gone up the trail.
The light begins to fade and the Indians pull far ahead. Whenever Hod thinks he's caught up he finds only another group of trudging pilgrims who report not to have seen them. He staggers on, over and around the deadfall, searching for footprints in the early snow. I'm a fool and a tenderfoot, he thinks, heart sinking. They've stolen it all and I'll be the laugh of the north country. It is dark and steep and slippery, his pack rubbing the skin off his back and his feet screaming with every step when he stumbles into the lot of them, smoking and laughing in a lantern-lit circle around the dog-eared cards.
"Another mile up to Sheep Camp," mutters Joe Raven, barely looking up from the game. "Gonna blow heavy tonight, so we best skedaddle."
If he takes his load off for a moment he'll never be able to hoist it again. "Let me just catch my breath," says Hod, holding on to a sapling to keep himself from sliding back down the incline while the Indians gather the rest of his outfit onto their backs.
"You doing pretty good for a cheechako," Joe tells him, adjusting the deer-hide tumpline across his forehead. "We had one, his heart give out right about this section. Had to pack him back to Dyea, sell his goods to raise the passage home. Somewhere called Iowa, they said his body went."
The night wind catches them halfway up to Sheep Camp, and when the sharper at the entrance asks Hod for two dollars to collapse, still dressed, onto a carpet of spruce boughs covered with canvas in a flapping tent shared with a dozen other men, he hands it over without comment.
In his sleep Hod walks ten miles, uphill and with a load on his back.
"We take you to the Stairs, but we don't climb," says Joe Raven as they dump his goods next to a hundred other piles in the little flat area at the bottom of the big slope. "Too many fresh suckers comin in to Dyea every day to bother with this mess."
The last of the tall spruce and alder dealt out yesterday evening, only a handful of wind-stunted dwarf trees left along the trek from Sheep Camp to the Stairs, and now nothing but a wall of rock and snowfield faces them, near vertical, all the way to the summit. There is a black line of pack-hauling pilgrims already crawling up the steps chopped into the ice, and here on the flat ground an ever-growing mob of adventurers crowded around a pair of freightage scales to weigh their outfits before starting the climb.
"Gonna take you a couple days, maybe twenty trips," says Joe Raven, counting Hod's money.
"When I take a load up, what's to keep folks from stealing the rest of my outfit?"
The Tlingit winks. "Anything you steal down here, you got to carry it up."
"But whatever I leave at the top while I'm hauling the next load - "
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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