by Erika Shepard
He peered down through gritty eyes at his wrinkled, callused hands. Standing motionless on the bank of an icy Alaskan stream, he was bent over at the waist, leaning on his battered old shovel.
“Damn, my back hurts,” he muttered aloud. “And dammit, my feet are cold, too. Ya hear me? I’m tellin’ ya, I wish to hell I was somewhere else—damn near anywhere else!” He waved at the cloud of mosquitoes around his face.
It was alone in the wilderness of the Alaska Range where he’d developed the habit of talking out loud. It helps scare the bears away, he reasoned. But in reality, he just wanted to hear a human voice, even of it was only his.
Joseph Nathanial Hardcroft, late of Wichita, Kansas, had been prospecting the length of that rocky stream for nigh onto two-and-a-half months. “Two damn ounces,” he muttered again. “Two Lord-be-damned ounces, just enough to drag me deeper and deeper into this purgatory, and winter is a-comin’ right around the corner.”
He straightened up slowly, groaning a bit as the muscles of his back complained at their mistreatment.
It had taken Joseph—“Kansas Joe” as he was known in nearby Healy—the better part of a year to make his way across the Rockies to the west coast, working what odd jobs he could find to pay his way.
Early on, he’d helped plant corn in western Kansas. Thankfully that was before the true heat of summer hit the prairie. Next, he’d found work shoveling cow manure at a Colorado meat-packing company. By that time, though, the summer sun had caught up to him and was baking the high plains, heat waves shimmering in the air by mid-morning every day. Working in the heat, sweat dripping, the filthy stench of the cow pens penetrated his every pore and burned his eyes. The work challenged his normally happy-go-lucky disposition, so he chose to move on as quickly as he could. His clothes, however, still smelled of manure despite many washings in many creeks along the way.
Not able to afford a train ticket from Colorado he made his way through the Rockies by joining a caravan of Mormon homesteaders headed to Idaho. He took care of their stock, while along the way they took it as a holy mission to convert him from his heathen views. He played along, until the end of the trek when he skedaddled as soon as he was paid.
He hooked up with another caravan headed for Fort Vancouver in the newly-minted State of Washington. From there he hoofed it north, finally arriving in the Nooksack River valley, where he found work as a farm hand for a Dutch dairy farmer. “Damn, I done it now,” he had groused to no one in particular after a week or so. “I work the crops, shovel stinkin’ manure, and git me a hefty dose of religion all in one go.”
But he stayed on because the room and board were good, even though the Dutchman did not pay well. After all, he had plenty of men like Joe to choose from, all headed for the goldfields. He was just another “goudzoeker,” the Dutch word for prospector. It wasn’t considered an honorable line of work, and it sounded like they were saying “cow sucker” when he heard the word. Joe didn’t like it, but he needed the job, so he shoveled manure and hoed the fields and prayed for rain and shoveled some more.
He had intended to move on toward the end of summer, but before he knew it came harvest time, then November—much too late for tramping north. So he shoveled for the Dutchman over the winter, and finally lit out for the goldfields following the spring planting. Good thing he’d had enough saved to afford a third-class berth on a coastal freighter headed for Anchorage.
“At least I had me a grubstake,” he said to no one, surprising himself out of his reverie. He looked around reflexively, checking for bears or wolves or coyotes or badgers or—worst of all—humans. “Can’t be too damn careful,” he muttered yet again. He shifted his belt, a greasy old Colt pistol hanging in a makeshift rag holster at his side. He had a rifle too, used mostly for small game to feed himself.
But the pistol? He’d only fired it once.
“Okay, one more load,” he growled to the rocks at his feet, and pulled a rusty old bucket closer. He bent down and put shovel to more dirt and rocks for the rocker box sluice he’d set up by the creek.
“She’ll be comin’ round the mountain when she comes,” he began to sing in a loud, off-key baritone, slow timed with his digging. “She’ll be comin’ round that mountain when she comes. She’ll be ridin’ on a horsey, smellin’ like a rosy, she’ll be comin’ round an’ rounder when she comes.”
With a steady rhythm, scoop by scoop, he filled the bucket. When it was full enough, he stood up straight and let the shovel fall from his hand to land with a clang on the rocks. “That’s enough.”
He leaned back a bit, hands on the sore muscles of his lower back, and stretched as best he could. Then with a sigh he pulled a filthy rag from his back pocket and wrapped it around the wire handle of the bucket. With a grunt he lifted it with both hands and began frog-stepping over the rocks to his sluice, the bucket dangling between his legs.
“Aww, shit,” he grunted over and over with each awkward step. After about fifty yards, he stopped for a breath.
“Damn,” he yelled at the trees. “Where’s my mule?” He immediately answered himself in the next breath. “Hell, you don’t have a mule, fool! She died on ya!”
Molly had been her name. “Molly the Mule, sweeter than a jewel,” he’d sung to the sky. Then, on the trip upstream, she’d slipped on a wet rock and broken her leg. In tears, Joe knew he had to do right by her.
That was when he had fired the pistol.
“Aww, shit. Aww, shit. Aww, shit.”
Joe was right proud of his sluice box. He’d built it himself from scrap lumber salvaged from the trash bins of Healy. With his knife and a borrowed saw, it was back-pack portable and required no nails. It notched together. “Tight as a coffin’s lid,” he proclaimed. He’d spent extra money for a store-bought riffle screen, though. Hungarian riffiles they were called. It was claimed they had better recovery of fine gold than others. To hold the really fine flour gold, he cut out section of old wool coat he’d found in the Healy trash and fitted it underneath the screen.
But Joe wasn’t convinced he’d done the right thing.
“Two damn ounces. The season near done, an’ I got two damn ounces. If I don’t make a strike, if I can’t find a pocket…” He let the thought slide away. It hurt too much. It was the demon that constantly lurked over his shoulder—failure. “Gotta be positive, dammit. Gotta be.”
He carefully set the bucket down next to the sluice, not wanting to pierce the bottom. He sank onto a well-positioned log and picked up his ladle and garden trowel that were lying nearby. Taking a scoop of dirt and rocks with the trowel, he dropped it into the top of the sluice. With his right hand he dribbled water over the soil, while with his left he rocked the sluice back and forth on its curved wooden supports. He began to sing.
“Rock a-bye baby, gimme some gold. Let me git rich before I gits old. If you don’t have none I’ll try agin’, then maybe some day I’ll have me a bed.”
Dirt, water, singing. Dirt, water, singing. After half an hour, the bucket was empty.
“Awright, darlin’, time to clean up,” he said as he struggled up from his log. “Here’s hopin’ fer some good news.”
He rinsed the bucket in the creek and filled it with water. He turned to the sluice and began prying out the wooden wedges that held the riffle screen in place. Pulling it up carefully, he tapped on the metal with a rock to dislodge stray dirt onto the wool mat below, and then stood it upright in the bucket and washed off each riffle with his bare hand.
He set it aside and scooted the bucket under the open end of the sluice. Stooping to the sluice again, he started at the top, carefully rolling the wool mat down the sluice, finally dropping it into the bucket end-wise. Lastly, using his dipper he rinsed out the bottom of the sluice, letting the water drain into the bucket.
He pulled the bucket over to the log and sat down. Washing the wool repeatedly in the water, he was careful to run the folds outwards to loosen every bit of sand, allowing it to settle to the bottom. When he felt the wool was clean, he set it aside to dry.
“Okey, dokey,” he said. “Let’s see how stinkin’ rich we are.”
He poured off the excess water from the bucket, then scooped out the gritty material and dropped it into his gold pan, rinsing out the bucket completely into the pan. The pan full, he got up, went to the creek, and squatted down. With his feet in the icy water and hands quickly aching with the cold, he began panning.
Round and round swirled the water and the sand, a little bit drifting off the top rim with each swing as he tipped it carefully forward. Half a pan full, a third, then a fourth, the sand darkened as the heavy grains accumulated and the lighter ones rejoined the race to the sea.
“Swish and swirl,’ he sang softly. “Swish and swirl, swirl and…”
A tiny flake, no bigger than the head of a pin, suddenly lay exposed in his pan. Quiet as a sunrise, it had peeked out to say hello to poor old Kansas Joe with his aching hands and feet ice cold and heart suddenly pounding.
He swirled the pan again, and for a moment the flake dissappeared. Again, and it reappeared with a friend. Then another.
“Oh Lordy, be good to me now,” he begged the sky. “Don’t fool with old Joe. He’s had a hard road and needs some good tidins’ here now. Be good is all I’m askin’, make this a good un’ fer me.”
Another swirl, and there, emerging from the dark grit–a nugget. Flat and shiny, it was about the size of Joe’s little fingernail, surrounded by smaller flakes and tiny bits of flour gold. Joe could barely control himself as he carefully continued panning, a few grains at a time, the pain in his hands and feet forgotten.
He’d found gold.
Maybe this time, he thought. But he did not say it out loud. No singing, he was silent now. There’d been too many disapointments, too many fragments of pyrite and chunks of false hope in his pan. Too many.
Lips tight, he continued, completely focused on the swirling pan.
Another one. Smaller than the first, but still… Then a third. A fourth. And a glorious fifth that was the size of his thumbnail. Finally, the pan tipped as far as he dare, a streak of fine gold powder glistened in the setting sun.
It was more gold than he’d panned at one time in all his life.
He looked up from the pan, held rigidly in his hands. Then, Joseph Nathanial Hardcroft, late of Wichita, Kansas, began to cry. He cried for joy, he cried for Molly. He cried for the Mormons and the cows and the corn that had put him in that desolate, lonely place. He cried for the sky and his shovel and his bucket. He cried for his aching back and cold hands and feet.
Ten hard days later, Joe was near done for. He’d tracked the gold upstream to a side creek. Beyond that point he found no gold in the stream. Along the way he’d panned out near on to fifteen more ounces of beautiful, gleaming fine gold and nuggets, the largest of which was the size and shape of a wrinkled pecan, complete with a few imbedded fragments of quartz. The quartz told him it hadn’t traveled far, otherwise it would have broken off as it tumbled downstream in the creek.
“I gotcha now,” he crowed when he had figured it out. “I gotcha, and you an’ me is gonna git to know each other real good.”
It was time to stake his claim.
He picked a point about a hundred yards upstream of the side tributary just to be sure he covered the source stream bed. There, he stripped the bark off a tree and shaved it flat on all four sides with his hatchet. Using his knife, he carved a name into the the trunk on one side: Molly 1.
He then turned uphill and paced out six hundred feet as best he could. There, another tree and Molly 2 was born. Six hundred feet came Molly 3. His claims now covered the entire slope from creek bed to ridge line and some down the back side. He did the same downstream from the first claims, thus creating Molly 4, 5, and 6
“That oughta do her,” he told himself. “I can come up here and mine the vein after the placer gold runs out.”
There was one more claim to stake, and he would do it as he left for the winter. Molly 7 would be an “insurance” claim, he told himself.
“If’n I missed a gold pocket or two comin’ upstream, that’ll cover it for now. But I gotta get outa here before it’s too late.”
It had already snowed twice—heavy, wet snow that melted in a day, but that was warning enough. Time to break camp and go.
He gathered his gear, but left the dismantled sluice box, his shovel and other tools stashed at the base of a big rock outcrop near the Molly 2 claim marker. On his back he carried only food, shelter, and a double-wrapped cloth sack containing nearly seventeen ounces of gold. He also carried his pistol on his belt and rifle in his hand.
“There’s all kinds of varmints out there,” he advised the trees. “Some of ‘em is on two legs.”
For ten days he sang his way downstream, watching the sky for signs of snow, watching the trees for critters to eat or stay away from, and watching his back for “varmints.”
On the eleventh day, he went quiet. “I’m probably just a couple o’ days from town,” he murmured to himself. “Gotta watch it.”
He decided to turn uphill and leave the relative open space of the creek bed, which now was wide and meandering. “I’ll track along just below the ridge line,” he reasoned. “That-a way I can see what’s what.”
For two quiet days Joe slipped through the shadows of scrawny trees, scurried around the backs of high rock outcrops along the ridge, and slept without a campfire. On the third day he rounded a corner, and the valley of the Healy River opened up before him. Off in the distance, lit by the orange glow of a setting sun stood Mount McKinley, brilliant, massive and intimidating.
He’d made it.
So it was that the very next day, Joseph Nathanial Hardcroft, late of Wichita, Kansas, presented himself at the land office in Healy, Alaska to duly register his claims.
But his clothes, somehow, still smelled of cow manure.
Erika Shepard is a retired field geologist and transgender woman living in Bellingham. She recently published her memoir titled Trans-Formations: From Field Boots to Sensible Heels, available at Village Books and on Amazon.
Erika’s story “Yellow Light” was featured in our Winter Issue: No Man’s Land.