There is a cot and a tin cup of lukewarm coffee waiting in the tent Whitey has set up at the top. It makes Hod near want to cry.
"You're not slidin down in the dark?"
"Don't see why in hell not," says Whitey, tying the straps of his hat tight under his chin. "I aint gonna fall, am I?"
It is possible only to do three trips each a day, the men trading few words in passing, eager to use every bit of light. Hod hates the Stairs more with every grinding ascent, but as the days pass their pile of goods at the top grows larger than the one at the bottom, and he uses his rest time to learn what he can about what lies ahead.
"It's an easy six miles down to Happy Camp on the Canadian side, then half of that to the edge of Lake Lindeman and the headwaters of the Yukon," they say.
"There's bad rapids between Lindeman and Lake Bennett," say the few men who have been there and more who haven't. "And then more on the river beyond. You got to make a boat and it better be a good one."
"Aint a straight tree left standing for miles around that lake camp, what they say. Whole damn forest been felled and whipsawed into planks and gone floatin down the river."
"You don't beat the ice this season, you got to sit there till May when it breaks up again. Go through half your grub just waiting."
"Been so many lost in them White Horse Rapids," they say, "Mounties make you hire a pilot to run you past em."
"Another goddam robbery."
"You a good swimmer?"
"Hell, I'd drown in a bathtub."
"Lucky you aint never been in one."
Laughter then. They are chasing the same nuggets and know there are not nearly enough for all of them, no matter how big the country, but have been drawn together, at least for the moment, by hardship. Not too many spend the night on the summit, a pair of Mounties left to make sure nobody sneaks across, but even with most of the caches unattended Hod hasn't witnessed any notable thievery. He and Whitey might be playing it too safe, he thinks, both of them could be hauling all day long and double their chances of getting down the river before the freeze.
"Been wondering the same," says Whitey when he staggers up with the morning haul. "Met a fella says he's waiting up here for his partner to come before he crosses over - lemme go find him and we'll work something out, couple dollars to look after our tent, and I'll be right on your tail. I'd sure like to see the last of this damn Chilkoot."
Hod sees it is mostly Whitey's outfit left when he gets to the bottom. He loads up with canned goods, rigging a pair of lanterns to hang over the back that rattle some when he moves but won't fall off. His legs have hardened to the trail. He works the sums as he climbs, a new-bought alpenstock to help his balance - two men hauling over two hundred pounds, each making three trips a day staggered, so even if doubling up means only one more climb a day - but that's counting on good weather, which keeps its own account book, and the Tlingits at the scales are muttering about an early freeze this year. He wonders how to ask Whitey to partner with him on the other side and how that will be, no telling what a man is like till you've gone down the long road with him. Whitey brings up whiskey with every load he hauls, and there is a sentry line of empty pint bottles outside each of the tents, but he is never passed out when Hod gets to the top, has never missed a turn on the Stairs. Hod has relied on other men in the mines, depended on his brother diggers for his life on occasion, but partnering, with no one the boss and no one the worker -
It will be half the treasure if they make a strike, of course, but also half the work. This north country is so big, so empty, the whole flocking mass of them, thousands of stampeders, only an aimless scattering of piss-ants in its white immensity. A man alone, tiny black dot stumbling over its treacherous surface, can disappear without a trace.
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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