Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Sherlock Holmes and the Klondike

I have been watching the Klondike miniseries on the Discovery Channel with great interest. As the two friends, Bill and Byron head for the Klondike, they scale the snow-covered Chilkoot Trail, get a boat at Lake Bennett and brave the rough water at Five Finger Rapids before arriving in Dawson City.

Watching the show I remembered all these events, but happening to my characters, Charles Westerbrook and Patrick Flynn, in my Sherlock Holmes adventure Cold-Hearted Murder.

I decided to post part of Cold-Hearted Murder on my blog. The following excerpt occurs halfway through the story recounting what had taken place in the Klondike that led to the murders in London. Here we are introduced to not only a main character, Injun Joe Payne, but we see a glimpse of the great Yukon Territory as well.


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.

Cold-Hearted Murder is available on Amazon


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