"You figure if God got a sense of humor," he says, "this is a real knee-slapper."
They pick a spot in the middle of the hundreds of caches to unload their packs, then walk together to the edge of the ridge.
"You lookin a might leg-weary, buddy," says Whitey, a shining new shovel slung over his shoulder. "I'd better make the next run."
There are two chutes running down the slope, icy sides polished with the traffic of bodies. Some men have made crude sleds and some just lay on their backs and draw their knees up to their chest, feet pointing downhill, wait a ten count, holler and then let fly, hoping not to stack up if someone catches a bootheel.
"You got to be shittin me," says Hod.
Whitey smiles and sits down on the blade of the shovel, the handle pointing out between his knees. "You give me a nudge and go rest up. We can get us in another couple trips before it's dark."
He is at the bottom in the time it takes Hod to pull his mittens off.
At their pile Hod pulls out the blankets rolled at the top of his pack to make a nest and even sleeps a little, his legs twitching and complaining all the while, then wakes and gets up to stretch. Men huddle around a little fire, burning a smashed packing crate, smoking pipes and telling tales of gold. Hod lays his couple stale biscuits close to the flame till they are blistered on both sides. They are only yards away from the line of stampeders waiting for the final weigh-in and tariff, a red-jacketed Mountie with a 76 Winchester standing guard in front of a little white tent with the Union Jack flapping over it, his fellows weighing and thoroughly examining the outfits. Nobody is getting past them hauling stones.
"They count your damn socks," grumbles a man by the fire. "Bunch of mother hens."
"Man wants to go freeze to death, starve to death, whatever, whilst he's searching for his bonanza, that oughta be his lookout," says another.
"They just after that tariff," says yet another as he roasts a potato on a stick. "Make you truck in all this gear and then tax whatever wasn't boughten in Canada. Well hell, these local Indian boys say they got no idea what's Canada and what's district of Alaska, didn't nobody pay it any mind before the strike at Thirtymile."
"That's the deal right there," says a man with a moustache that drops down past his chin. "Wasn't for them boys in red, how long you think the border would hold? Wherever the hell it is."
The soldiers are noting it all, checking off on their lists the picks and shovels, the cooking pots and utensils, the tents and blankets and lamps and oil and flour and soda and bacon and beans and sets of long underwear, everything down to the shoelaces. If there are firearms they note those too, writing down the make and model, the caliber and amount of ammunition.
"St. Peter made this much fuss at the Golden Gate," barks the sourdough whose goods they are poring over, "there wouldn't be a saint in Heaven." It is nearly evening when Whitey reaches the summit again. He has Hod's tent and promises to set it up while Hod makes the last climb.
"Be a place to get out of the weather when you get here."
"And you'll go back down?"
"I got mine all fixed at the bottom. I tell you, I feel sorry for these poor folks trying to go it alone."
The shovel deal makes him nervous, so Hod chooses to run the chute on his back, folding his arms in the way Whitey shows him, like a dead man in a coffin. He has to wiggle a little to get going, then picks up speed, tucking his chin to his chest and not realizing he is screaming with exhilaration till he is halfway down and the air whipping tears into his eyes, rolling sideways a bit like he might fly out of the groove but then sliding to a long stop at the bottom and slammed by the whooping pilgrim behind him.
He loads his pack as fast as he can and shoves his way back into the line, but there is no speed to be gained on the Stairs, and after two hours of trudging the light dies. The climbers close up then, each with a hand resting on the small of the back of the man ahead, moving slower, digging in at every foothold. There are a few long halts, somebody fallen most likely but no telling, just minutes of bracing still against the night wind, and then creeping upward again.
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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