12. The Sourdoughs
In the northwest corner of the great North American continent is a land much like the one God gave to Cain. It is a land as inhospitable as one is likely to find on this earth, and for many years was shunned by most human beings. It is an unforgiving land... bleak, isolated and unavailing. In the summer months veritable hordes of mosquitoes infest the bogs and swamps, while in the winter ice and snow cover the mountains and valleys, and the cold creeps in like a thing alive to prey upon the weak, and chill the bones of the warmest-blooded creature. It is a remote wilderness not fit for civilized men in their right mind, and to reach it from the outside world is not an easy task even for the toughest and resolute of men. Yet, strangely enough in the latter half of the nineteenth century men and women and even children swarmed there in droves, though many of them lived to regret it.
In this great wilderness is a mighty river, stretching some two thousand miles across the rugged landscape. It is fed by a myriad of unnamed streams and creeks. These creeks and streams feed other tributaries that proceed into the mighty river as it winds its way flowing forever westward, where it invariably empties into the Bearing Sea. The river flows– as it has always flowed– bringing the meltwaters of the mountains to the sea to fulfill its destiny, and as the river flows it carries along sand and gravel and other minerals, one heavier than the others, and deposits it in various spots along its course. This soft, yellow mineral is different from the rest and has been deemed precious by men who have sought it for thousands of years. For some men, there has always been an attraction to it. The metal possesses an alluring quality that tugs at the minds of men to the point of obsession, and some men, once afflicted with the fever it generates, are apt to spend their entire lives in pursuit of it. The good Lord must have a sense of humour indeed to have put so much of it in this awful and unforgiving land.
By 1867, the year Russia sold Alaska to the Americans, and the year of Confederation in Canada, men were already drawn to the north country prowling the rivers and creeks in search of this precious metal. For the most part these men were restless souls whose dreams were filled with memories of the strike in California of `49, the silver mines of Colorado, and the Caribou trail of `62. These men were more or less misfits of society, men who shunned cities and towns and farms, and developed their own code of ethics and conduct. They were driven men with singleness of purpose, and who desired no other life than prospecting. They lived for one thing, and in the summer of 1896 they received what they had always waited for– the cry of GOLD!!
It was a word that spread like wildfire through the hills. A gold-strike of such unheard-of quality that it conjured up fantastic dreams in some, disbelief in others. And where was this strike located? Who was it that discovered it? The strike was made in the most unlikely of places by the most unlikely of men. The gold was found on a small nondescript creek whose valley was deemed too wide by experts to contain any gold, and found by a man named George Carmack, who was not all that interested in finding gold. He and his two native companions were directed to Rabbit Creek by a seasoned prospector, Robert Henderson, who stated the area looked promising. Because of its high yield, Rabbit Creek would later be renamed Bonanza, but other strikes would later be made in the Klondike that would prove to be even larger than that one.
Along the creeks came a pair of men who could not have been much different from one another, but it was their differences that made them good partners. Russian Mike was a mountain of a man standing just over six and a half feet tall, with a dark bushy beard and a barrel chest. He was born Mikolav Riskin a descendant of an Alaskan Russian of noble ancestry who married an Indian woman. Mike had rejected his Indian heritage, and so grew up doing what other whitemen did in Alaska, and so at a young age he decided to learn all he could from other prospectors who searched for the elusive metal. Russian Mike, in his thick gum boots and frayed mackinaw, had roamed the banks of the Yukon River from St. Michael to Forty Mile and beyond, but had yet to find any gold. At the time of the gold strike on Rabbit Creek, Russian Mike was working a worthless claim near Forty Mile, a small mining town in the Yukon Territory of Canada. Hearing of the strike on Rabbit Creek, Russian Mike packed all his belongings– which amounted to a rucksack, a gold-pan, a short-stemmed shovel, and a tin of sourdough starter– and left his claim and headed for the Klondike River. On the way he crossed paths with a man named Joseph Payne, or Injun Joe, as he was known in the north.
Though he could not claim to have any native blood in his veins, Joseph Payne believed he should have been born an Indian. He could hunt, and trap anything on four legs. He was not too tall, and he dressed like any whiteman in the bush would– thick woollen pants and shirt, heavy durable boots that went half way up his calf, big brim slouch hat, and heavy coat. The only native garb he kept on his person was the small leather medicine bag that hung about his neck by a leather cord. In the small pouch he kept small mementos from meaningful times of his life. He preferred living in the bush and his origins were a mystery and the cause of much speculation around Forty Mile. His place of birth was not even known to himself. Joseph Payne’s earliest memories were of living in Western Canada where he leaned to ride a horse, hunt buffalo on the plains, and trap and trade with the natives who welcomed him into their camps and regarded him as an honest man. He was there when the red-coated North West Mounted Police arrived in the west in 1874, and he remained with them on the plains for a short time lending his services as a scout and interpreter to the natives. With the approach of civilization he ventured into the north country, past Edmonton, heading further and further into the wilderness, until he reached the Yukon Territory. There in the rugged wilds, Payne lived alongside the natives, who recognized and appreciated his abilities, and sometimes he would wander away by himself living off the earth where most men would have perished.
By chance he made the acquaintance of Russian Mike and the two became fast friends. When their paths crossed in the summer of `96 and Russian Mike proposed the two of them throw in together, and Joseph Payne immediately accepted. They were an amazing pair; the large verbose Russian and the smaller Canadian who was frugal with his words, and would not waste one when a gesture would suffice. And whereas Mike was ready with a broad smile or a hearty laugh, the Canadian was ever practical and solemn. Some say Injun Joe first learned to pan gold in the Caribou, while others say that Russian Mike taught him everything he knew about gold. It mattered little though, since most everything Joe Payne attempted he performed well with a meticulousness to detail that bespoke of pride in one’s work.
In the summer of 1896 Russian Mike was thirty-three years old, while Injun Joe was forty-nine. Despite his age Joe could outwork almost any man, even the big Russian. Payne was considered a tough old man for he looked older than he was. The lifestyle that bred incredible strength and endurance also showed in his face that was brown and leathery from constant exposure to the extreme elements. If left to his own Joe would have preferred to live off the land as he had always done, but he stayed with the large prospector because he liked the man and felt a sense of loyalty to him, and would stay with Mike until he gave Joe cause to leave.
They walked along the great river until they came to a juncture of two rivers, the Yukon River and a smaller one the local natives called Thron-diuck or Thunder River. The white men called it Klondike.
Coming to another juncture where the river met a creek, Russian Mike paused and sniffed the air. Injun Joe watched the man for some moments. Finally Russian Mike proclaimed: “This way!” They continued walking along the creek, stopping occasionally to scoop up a pan from the banks. Towards evening the Russian half-breed stooped over and panned again. Standing up he examined the yield. He turned to his new partner and said: “We will camp here.”
Their claim was on a tiny stream called Muskrat Creek, and both men were entitled to fifty feet along the banks of the stream. The partners lived in a tent set upon a height of ground by the creek hemmed in by might pine trees. It was a humble dwelling but both were simple men who needed little. They had panned the area and found it promising. For the remainder of the year the two men worked their claim.
During the long winter months the two men huddled inside the small cabin they built to replace their tent, and it was here that Russian Mike imbued Injun Joe with the code of the prospectors. Once a man struck gold, it was his duty to inform others of the strike, Mike told Joe. If a man was hungry, he was fed, if he needed lodgings he was given a place to sleep. So removed from any type of law and order the old-time miners developed their own sense of justice in the way of miner’s meetings where grievances were heard and decided upon, and judgement was dispensed swiftly and with impunity. This was the kind of justice Joseph Payne was used to and could appreciate. He felt it right that men should decide their own affairs. Though he did respect the red-coated mounted policemen, Payne did not necessarily believe they were needed here in the Yukon.
During the winter months, when the snow and ice covered everything, the two men were not deterred from working their claim. Shafts had to be dug down through the permafrost to the bedrock. This was done by burning wood on the ground to thaw it. Once it was thawed, the dirt could be scraped off and piled onto a dump, and the process was repeated. In the spring the dirt on the dump was shovelled onto a dumpbox where bars on the grizzly kept out the bigger chunks of gravel. The smaller pieces fell through to the sluice where water from the creek helped carry the dirt down the sluicebox over riffles that caught the heavier pieces of gold.
During the long winter months their lives were not idle. Whenever the beans and bacon ran out Injun Joe hunted and trapped in the woods for their food. Russian Mike could cook whatever Joe brought to the cabin and thus the men shared a well-balanced relationship. When it came to eating, Joe preferred pemmican, an ancient Indian food that was simply pounded meat mixed with bone marrow. The mixture was stored in an animal skin that could last for a year. Joe was also fond of bannock bread which he cooked on a stick over the fire. As fond as he was of bannock, Joe Payne preferred his partner’s sourdough bread.
From Alaska, Russian Mike had brought, along with some other miner essentials, a small crock container holding one of his most precious possessions, sourdough starter. It had been given to him by an old-timer who had gotten his from another miner in Alaska, which could trace back its origins to California. This fermented starter was used in the north country in place of yeast to make bread rise. Miners such as Russian Mike would carry the sourdough starter from one claim to another and these old-time prospectors came to be known as ‘Sourdoughs’. Mike was very particular about his sourdough starter. It had a special spot above the cabin’s stove, and on very cold nights Mike was known to take the sourdough crock to bed with him to keep it warm.
In the spring of 1897 the partners were working the dump, shovelling the dirt into the dumpbox and down the sluice, when they were approached by three strangers. They were an unsavoury-looking trio, and despite what Russian Mike had said about welcoming strangers, he was uneasy at their approach. With a keen insight and perception Injun Joe picked up on this immediately and kept a tight hold on the shovel he was using. The strangers tried to appear friendly enough, but their manner betrayed them. The leader, a dark-haired, dark-eyed man casually mentioned that he and his companions had staked out this claim over a year ago and it belonged to them. Russian Mike, in his brusque way, told them that there were no markers when he and Injun Joe had come here, and he had no intention of giving up or sharing this claim with the newcomers. The scene turned ugly and threats were bandied about. Injun Joe said nothing during this exchange, even when the leader of the newcomers pulled a knife threateningly. Joe picked up a stone and with a keen eye and a strong arm he threw it at the knife wielder. The stone struck the man violently in the head staggering him and causing him to drop the knife. His two companions went to his aid, while Russian Mike and Injun Joe advanced on the claim jumpers with their shovels held high. Seeing the pair was not about to back down, the trio beat a hasty retreat.
Incidents such as this, though rare in the Klondike, were indicative of the harsh land and the harsh men who were drawn there. This incident only proved to strengthen the bond between the two prospectors and each knew he could depend upon the other and could trust the other with his life. It was a hard, lonely existence, and the two had only each other, but the hard work and comradery created the type of close friendship that was very rare in the world but all too necessary in this wilderness country.
In early summer, when the ice on Muskrat Creek thawed, the two miners began to shovel the dirt from the dump that had built up over the winter. They shovelled it into the sluice box where water from the creek was diverted into it so to wash the contents down the riffles of the box. A matting was laid in the bottom of the box and periodically it would be taken out and its contents put in the gold-pan and mixed with more water. One day Injun Joe swirled the contents of his pan in a circular fashion. As dirt and gravel were carefully and slowly washed out of the pan, Payne’s eyes caught sight of a chunk of yellow rock that was too heavy to wash out. With suppressed excitement he walked over to where his partner was hunkered down by the creek with his own pan. Joe Payne squatted down next to Mike and showed him the contents of his pan.
Wordlessly the two men stood up. Carefully Russian Mike reached into Joe’s pan and gingerly removed a gold nugget about the size of the tip of a man’s finger. Mike closely examined the nugget holding it before his eyes, then bit into it. The large man turned to his partner and threw his huge arms around him. A booming laugh escaped the man’s lips as he lifted Joe Payne into the air as easily as he would a child. With Joe in his arms Russian Mike danced around as he continued to laugh heartily.
“We struck it rich, partner!” the big man chanted over and over. “What do you think of that?!”
Though the older man did not join in the laughter, he did smile to see his partner so happy.
The two panned and panned all that day but failed to find any more gold that closely resembled the nugget found previously. What they did find was gold dust and flakes that they carefully put into small sacks that they would weigh and divide up later. That night Joe asked Mike if he might have the large nugget he found so he might put in into the medicine bag he wore around his neck.
The Russian half-breed agreed, since he sincerely believed they would find much more, but he said he wished to know from Payne the significance of the bag. Injun Joe was at first reluctant to talk about it, as if not entirely certain how to explain it. Finally he said, “There have been important things that have happened in my life. Whenever that has happened there has always been something... some object that was tied to the event, and I put the object in my medicin bab. This bag contains several items from my life. Now it will also hold this piece of gold, for I believe it has some importance that I may not know at this time, but will become clear later.”
The Russian accepted this explanation, and the two men never spoke about it again.
In May of 1897 Injun Joe left Russian Mike to work and protect the claim while he went into the hills to hunt and trap for food as their provisions were getting low. He was gone for several days before he returned to the claim pulling a travois laden with fresh meat that would last them through most of the summer. As he approached the cabin something strange caught his attention and he observed the scene from behind a tree. From where he stood, he could see three men working the claim, but none of them was Russian Mike. On closer observation he recognized the same three men that they had run off some months earlier, but never was there a sign of his partner. All that day Joseph Payne stayed away from the cabin and only approached it later that night under the cover of darkness. Noiselessly he listened by the door as the three claim jumpers spoke inside. It was in this way that he learned these men had stole upon the cabin one night and seeing that Russian Mike was alone, they killed him to take over the claim. They did not seem to know whatever became of Mike’s rock wielding partner, but they were glad he was gone and assessing him to be a restless wanderer, were certain he had enough of mining and ventured back to life in the bush.
On hearing this, Joseph Payne’s blood raced and his heart hammered in his breast. He controlled the impulse to burst into the cabin and kill all three, for he knew a better way. He did not consider fetching the Mounted Policeman who was in charge of upholding law and order in the area. Payne chose to exact the punishment himself in his own way, and he would start this very evening.
He waited until one of the men left the cabin to relieve himself. The man did not venture far and as the man was occupied, Injun Joe snuck up behind him with a knife and cut his throat.
It was not long before the remaining two, concerned as to their companion’s whereabouts, stepped out of the cabin and called out to him. Payne observed them from far off. He had cached the dead body where the two men would not find it in the dark. Finally, after a while, the two gave up on their friend and decided to search for him at first daylight.
When day broke they did not have to look far, for outside the door of the cabin, hanging upside down from a tree was their dead partner, fresh blood covering his face and clothes. Grabbing their rifles they scoured the area looking for the person who had done this. Though they searched and searched no sign could be found. Out of fear the two claim jumpers did not leave their cabin for days. When they finally found the courage to do so they went armed with rifles and never went off alone.
Days passed, then a week. With no recurrence of hostilities the two men grew braver and could sometimes be found alone. One day one of the men left the other to prepare dinner in the cabin. An hour later when the other came to the cabin hungry from a hard day’s work he was horrified by what he saw. His partner had been murdered and left fixed upright on the cabin wall with a pickaxe through the chest.
Instantly the man fled the cabin in fear that the murderer might be hiding there waiting for him. The man fled into the bush and had run quite far before he stopped to realize that in his flight he had not taken a weapon nor any food to sustain him. As evening drew nigh and darkness came over all, the woods seemed to hold unseen and unknowable terrors. The man’s thoughts turned to finding one of those Canadian policeman and confessing to the murder of the Russian miner, as long as he was given protection from the mad killer who was undoubtedly pursuing him now. The man was gripped by an unshakable fear that he had never experienced in his entire life. Cold sweat broke out over his body, while his breath came in laboured gasps and his heart beat against the walls of his chest. He did not remember hearing a sound before he was hit upon the head.
When he awoke the man found himself tied hand and foot, and gagged. His clothes had been stripped off him, and he was aware of another’s presence.
Not far from him a man, stripped to the waist, and with his back to him was bending over a small fire. This man rose and turned toward the other. Injun Joe, though not Indian at all, resembled a North American native, his skin browned by the sun, his face streaked with colour derived from berries. The terrified claim jumper, who attempted to cringe back from horror, soon found himself subjected to an ordeal of torture not known to most men. With his knife Injun Joe made numerous cuts on the man’s body, and burned his extremities with a hot poker. By the time Joe killed the man, he was a quivering mass of bloody flesh. In this way Injun Joe dolled out his own brand of vengeance that sprang from the wilderness justice by which he lived.
In his own singular way Joe Payne disposed of the bodies of the claim jumpers, and left no trace that they had ever been there. Payne did report the disappearance of Russian Mike and when Inspector Charles Constantine arrived at the Muskrat Creek claim to investigate, he could find no trace of the body. There was some speculation as to what may have happened to Russian Mike. Some say Injun Joe killed his partner to get the entire claim for himself, but those who knew the relationship between the two men, and this included Inspector Constantine, understood that Joe could never hurt Mike.
Before he departed Constantine asked Joe if he had seen three miners that seemed to be missing. They were an unsavoury lot and not to be trusted, the Inspector related to Payne. Joe told the Inspector that he and Mike had run across three men in the spring, but Joe had not seen the three men since. He thanked the Inspector and said he would surely be wary if those men were to show up again.
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