Friday, September 2, 2011
Cold Hearted Murder
You come to get rich (damned good reason);
You feel like an exile at first;
You hate it like hell for a season,
And then you are worse than the worst.
It grips you like some kinds of sinning;
It twists you from foe to a friend;
It seems it’s been since the beginning;
It seems it will be to the end.
-- Robert Service, The Spell of the Yukon
15. The Claim
Patrick Flynn was aware that Charles Westerbrook was not to be totally trusted, for Flynn did not totally trust anyone who shunned hard work, and his English partner spurned physical labour as though it was the plague. Flynn often wondered and marvelled that Westerbrook even reached the Klondike, and that he had come by The White Pass, tales of which were now legendary in Dawson City. But what troubled the young American the most was that sight forever burned in his mind: the image of Westerbrook pushing his female companion, Clara Stipes over the side of the boat, or at least that was the way it appeared to Flynn. Had he misinterpreted that scene, he often thought. The boat was being tossed about a good deal. Perhaps Westerbrook had been slammed into Clara by the rushing, churning water. Then again, Flynn could have sworn the man’s arm went out as if he were intentionally shoving her over the side. Or was his hand reaching out to grab her? Though he wrestled with it in his own mind, Patrick Flynn could not come to a clear interpretation. The truth be known, the American did not truly wish to know of his partner was indeed a murderer.
When faced the dilemma of finding work or starving, Flynn wasted little time. He soon found a job as a lumberjack felling trees that were shipped to mills that produce boards that went to building banks and saloons and shops in the every-growing city of Dawson. With his experience from the forests in the state of Washington, the American had little trouble finding work which was hard but honest. After several weeks he was fortunate to get a job hauling the wood, then finally working on a steamer that carried cargo and passengers up and down the Yukon River.
Now he saw little of his partner, as Flynn found himself in Dawson City only periodically. The last he had heard from Westerbrook was that he finally got work in a saloon in town. Patrick Flynn might have been happy to spend the remainder of his days in the Klondike plying ships on the Yukon River. He soon began to think of having his own ship one day and being captain. It would be a good life, and the way Dawson City was growing, the gold strike could go on for years and he would have steady work bringing newcomers to the north to take part in the spectacle. Even if more than half of them turned right around and went back home, that would help keep Flynn busy as well.
Such was not to be the fate for Patrick Flynn, for during one trip where the ship was bringing supplies to Dawson City the boiler on board exploded, and the vessel sank. Fortunately there were no hands lost, but with no insurance the cargo was mostly ruined and the ship unsalvageable. All the way back to Dawson City Flynn cursed his luck and contemplated his next move. There would be opportunities for a strong, young man of his many abilities and willingness to work hard. He was thankful, however, that Westerbrook had a job.
“What do you mean you’re out of work?” Flynn demanded of his partner when he returned to Dawson City. “The last time we spoke you said you were well set-up, with a great job and lots of money. You even told me about a girl you were seeing.”
“It would seem there has been a reversal of fortune for us both, Patrick,” Westerbrook said undaunted.
“But what shall we do now? With no money we’ll be out in the street in no time. We have to get work and fast.”
“I have been thinking of that, Paddy me boy,” Westerbrook said in the most optimistic manner. “What did we come all the way to the Klondike for, eh? To work in a saloon? To cut down trees and work on a bloody boat? No! We came to look for gold. It’s why we came. It’s why we’re still here.”
“But all the claims are staked, Charlie. They have been since we arrived.”
“So we will hook up with someone who already has a claim,” Westerbrook said.
“But I thought you didn’t like the idea of working someone else’s mine for wages, Charlie.”
“Circumstances would dictate that I revise my former position,” Westerbrook said cheekily. “What do you say, Patrick?”
It took Charles Westerbrook the rest of the day and some of the night to convince his American partner that this was their best opportunity. The smooth talking Englishman was convincing, and before long Patrick Flynn found himself enamoured with the idea of mining for gold and going back home a rich man and being able to show to everyone that he was a success. The only thing Westerbrook was unable to tell him was where they would find an established miner willing to take them on as partners.
Though Charles Westerbrook quit his job at the Golden Nugget, he remained in close contact with Suzanne Bouchard. Through information gleaned off the many miners and businessmen who frequented the saloon, Suzanne was able to find out when Injun Joe Payne would be coming into Dawson City for supplies. The old miner was known to shun the town as much as possible, so there might not be another opportunity for many months.
On the pretense of going out to scout the area for likely employment, Westerbrook led Flynn out into the countryside southwest of Dawson City. The latter thought it an exercise in futility, but the Englishman talked excessively in his usual optimistic manner.
Flynn could not understand his partner. Here they were, two out of work, desperate men, stuck in the most Godforsaken spot with autumn carrying a whisper of winter on her lips, and absolutely no prospects, and here was Westerbrook acting as if nothing was wrong and they might simply be out for an afternoon stroll.
The two men ventured out to the creeks where miners had staked their claims. Mile-wide valleys where creeks and streams flowed were anything but picturesque. One creek appeared the same dull, drab scene as the next. Hillsides of spruce, aspen and birch were practically stripped bare, as the wood was needed for fuel, shelter and most importantly sluice boxes. The creeks were dotted haphazardly with dwellings. Some miners had log cabins made from green wood with dirt-covered roofs where wild flowers grew lending a bit of colour to the scene. But these were the more elegant dwellings, as many miners lived in tents. These miners all seemed to look the same to Flynn and Westerbrook; men in tall muddy boots, dressed in heavy work-clothes dull from dirt. They had either mustaches or thick beards. Their expressions too were similar; gimlet-eyed men with a serious demeanor, whose very life force appeared to be draining from them, the same as they were extracting the riches out of the earth.
As the day progressed Patrick Flynn did notice his companion grew more anxious, as if anticipating something, and Charles’s right hand constantly seemed to find his coat pocket, or sometimes patted it reassuringly. After accomplishing practically nothing that day, aside from questioning several miners from the creeks, Westerbrook suggested they return to town and the partners soon found themselves walking down the road to Dawson City. They came to a fork in the road, and Flynn saw his partner stumble and fall to the ground.
“Are you all right there, Charlie?” the American asked.
“I seem to have twisted my ankle,” the other replied displaying some discomfort.
“Can you walk on it?”
“I do not believe so. Perhaps we best wait here a while.”
It was getting towards evening and Patrick Flynn grew more impatient as the time wore on. He suggested to the Englishman that perhaps he should walk into Dawson and come back with a horse or cart to convey Westerbrook into town, but the man would not hear of it. Charles implored Flynn to remain with him, and he was certain he would soon be well enough to walk.
It was getting dark, when from far off down the road the partners heard hostile voices. Westerbrook informed his partner that his ankle was feeling better and that they best go investigate for someone might be in need of aid.
The pair moved down the road cautiously and soon came across a scene quite rare in the Klondike. A group of three men armed with rifles were attempting to rob an old miner leading a mule loaded with supplies.
“You just stand still, old-timer!” one of the thieves growled.
“Don’t make any move to stop us and you won’t get hurt!” said another.
The miner appeared calm, standing before the bandits. Two held their weapons pointed at him, while the third endeavoured to search through the supplies that had been tied to the mule, but were now littered upon the ground.
“Did you find any gold?” one asked to the other who searched through the bundles and packages on the ground.
“Not yet, but there’s got to be gold here somewhere,” the man replied.
Patrick Flynn was by no means a coward. Indeed, he was reputed to be a brave man by many who knew him, but he was at a bit of a dilemma. Here he was, weaponless, outnumbered with a hurt partner, about to attempt to stop an old man from being robbed and maybe killed. Patrick’s mind worked fast but he could see no safe way to intervene. He was in the middle of a plan of action when all of the sudden Charles Westerbrook charged ahead calling Flynn to follow. In his hand Westerbrook waved a pistol high in the air yelling at the robbers.
“Stop thieves!” he called out. “I have a gun and I’ll use it, by God! Leave that man alone or I’ll shoot!”
Everyone including Flynn was startled at the outburst. Later Patrick would recall gunshots ringing out in the night, and the bandits fleeing down the road with his partner in hot pursuit.
“Are you all right, mister?” Flynn asked the old miner who was almost as startled as he. The man was dressed in thick gummed boots and a mackinaw coat heavily frayed at the collar and cuffs. He almost resembled a hobo, but there was a strength of character that showed in the wrinkled face, and his eyes still held a spark.
The man looked at Flynn in the waning light and nodded briefly. They both stared off down the road where a few gunshots were heard over Charles Westerbrook’s voice as he yelled at the fleeing thieves.
“The dirty blighters got away,” Charles uttered as he made his way back to the scene. “Are the two of you all right?”
Flynn stared at his partner with disbelief. When he found his voice, he said: “Charlie, that was amazing! Where did you get that gun?”
“I always carry it, didn’t you know? You never know when you might run into unsavoury characters. I hope I get a chance to run into those three again.” Flynn continued to stare at his companion, shocked at this uncharacteristic act of bravery.
“Are you certain they did not hurt you?” Westerbrook said to the miner. “I am sorry; where are my manners? My name is Charles Westerbrook and this is my partner, Patrick Flynn.”
The miner nodded while touching the wide brim of his hat. “How’d you do.”
“I am sorry,” Westerbrook said, his polite and proper manner in juxtaposition to the scene. “I am afraid we did not get your name.”
The miner studied his two rescuers a moment and said: “My name’s Payne. Joe Payne. Some call me Injun Joe.”
“It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance,” Westerbrook said putting out his right hand. The miner shook it and Flynn’s in turn. “It is fortunate we happen to come along.”
“Yup,” Joe Payne replied.
“May we help you reload your supplies onto your mule?”
“Oh, but we insist,” Westerbrook began. “Those dirty blighters might come back.”
“It really is no trouble,” Pat Flynn added, and they proceeded to help the miner pack his mule.
At the insistence of the younger men they escorted the miner back to his cabin. Joe Payne was, of course grateful for their timely aid, and once they were back at his cabin he offered the two younger men a supper of beans and bacon and tea that he had just purchased in Dawson City.
“Do you get into town much Mr. Payne?” Pat Flynn asked.
The older man shook his head. “I don’t much care for towns,” he said in his own quiet way, but somehow the words carried more on them.
Though it was a simple meal, it was tasty, and the two young men were grateful.
“You know, I am hoping that those three robbers did not follow us here,” Charles Westerbrook said. “I would not feel good at leaving Mr. Payne here alone and at the mercy of those three. They appeared to be a formidable gang.”
“They weren’t too smart, those three,” Payne added.
“No?” Pat Flynn said. “And why do you say that?”
“They were looking through my things for gold. Not many miners would be carrying gold back from Dawson City. Any fool would know that miners bring their gold into town.”
“Would you care for us to stay a bit longer, Mr. Payne?” Westerbrook posed. “It would be no trouble.”
Joe Payne regarded his two guests and asked: “Just what are you two boys looking for?”
Flynn and Westerbrook exchanged curious looks.
“Maybe something to show my gratitude for helping out tonight?”
“You mean some kind of reward?” Pat Flynn said.
“No sir,” Westerbrook added. “My partner and I are not looking at compensation for any assistance we might have lent you tonight. We were glad and proud we could come to your aid. Mr. Payne, if you wish us to leave this very moment we will be on our way, grateful for the hospitality you have shown us tonight. Let us be on our way, Patrick. We have imposed upon Mr. Payne’s good graces enough. We are happy to have made your acquaintance, sir,” Westerbrook said to the miner offering his right hand. “We trust our paths may cross again. Come, Patrick, it is a long walk back to Dawson.”
Joe Payne silently escorted the two men out of the cabin. They had taken only a few steps before Pat Flynn turned and said: “Charlie’s right, Mr. Payne, when he said we don’t need any reward for what we did tonight. We did it out of Christian charity. But the truth of the matter is, we’re a little down on our luck. We’re not looking for a handout. We both need work.”
“What kind of work?”
“We would work for you, Mr. Payne,” Flynn said sincerely. “We’d be grateful if you gave us a job.”
Joe Payne looked at the American and knew instinctively he was a good worker. The broad shoulders and heavy arms bespoke a strong man given to heavy work. Payne knew something about people. He knew Flynn to be sincere and honest. Unfortunately there was something about the other man he did not like, something in the Englishman’s manner he did not trust, plus the fact the man did not look as if he were cut out for mining. He was too refined, too gentile. Still, they did come to his aid with little regard for their own safety, and he could use two young men to help out. Payne had been alone for over a year since his old partner Russian Mike was killed. Loneliness is an awful thing, even for men like Injun Joe. In an instant he made up his mind. It was one of the few times in his life he had gone against his better judgement, and a decision he would live to regret.
“All right then, boys, you got a job.”
Flynn and Westerbrook slept at the cabin that night. It was big enough and well built. In the morning they walked back to town to pack their belongings and move out to the cabin on the creek permanently. On the walk back to Dawson Pat Flynn noticed Westerbrook’s ankle did not seem to bother him at all.