It was cold this morning, and foggy, the thick whiteness clinging to the frozen waters of the creek. John Lansdowne Granville curled his hands together inside his thick fur mittens for a moment, willing them to warm up. He knew it was a futile effort, but if he at least thought his hands were warm, it would help.
He rubbed his hands briskly together, and pulled the wool scarf around his neck tighter against the icy dampness. Picking up the shovel, he went back to emptying the contents of several buckets of dirt onto a nearby mound of the frozen black stuff.
His partner, Sam Scott, was fourteen feet below him, digging out more chunks of half-thawed dirt, heavy with water, and dumping them into five gallon buckets. Granville could just hear the rhythmic clunking of Scott’s shovel, the sound almost lost in the gurgle and hiss of the steam boiler they used to thaw the permafrost at the bottom of the mineshaft.
Granville emptied the last of his buckets, lowered them down to Scott. Then he started to winch heavily filled steel buckets back up, the wooden crank-handle stiff and awkward. And it began all over again.
It was endless work, harder than anything Granville had ever done. The fellows at Braley’s— the upper-crust London boxing salon he’d frequented after he was sent down from Oxford—would be utterly amazed to see him now. One look at the muscles of his upper torso, though, and they’d be clamoring to know his secret—and willing to pay good money to hire his trainer. He grinned at the thought. Not one in ten of them would last a day out here.
He glanced around him. Granville could barely make out the bank of the creek, white snow against white fog, couldn’t even hear the steam engines and sounds of digging from the claims above and below theirs, nor the ones on the hillside beyond the creek. He knew they were there, though, and more besides. Strung up and down the creeks, along the hillside—claims worked hard by miners desperate for gold.
And none of them—himself and Scott included—would know for sure if there was any point to it until spring, when the sun finally thawed these miniature mountains of dirt they were making, and set the creeks running free. Then they’d be able to sluice the dirt, one bucket at a time, and if they were very lucky, they’d find enough gold to make this endeavor worth all the time and effort. Some days he thought they were all crazy.
Most days he knew they were.
But the stories of the gold flowing freely from claims on Bonanza Creek, on Eldorado, were enough to keep them all digging. And every night, he and Scott would thaw out a bucket or two of the heavy dirt and pan for gold—using water painstakingly melted on the iron stove bought at an exorbitant cost from some poor soul who’d lost everything and fled Dawson just before winter set in. Hoping that this time they’d find nuggets, big ones.
Though he’d settle for a really rich gold seam, Granville thought as he hauled yet another bucket.
A yell from somewhere downstream, unearthly and far too loud through the fog, nearly startled him into letting go of the crank-handle. He winced at the thought of dropping a full bucket fourteen feet to where Scott was working, and quickly brought the bucket up that last foot.
Unhooking it, he called down to his partner. “Something going on downstream. I’m going to take a look.”
Scott’s head—visible because of the burning candles tucked into nooks in the walls— appeared out of the side tunnel he was working in. “Need some company?”
“Depends. You need a break?”
“Nope. I might’ve hit a streak.”
His heart sped up. Sometimes all the hard work was worth it. And for those lucky few, chasing Klondike gold wasn’t crazy at all.
“It look good?”
Granville couldn’t see his partner’s shoulders for the gloom in the mine, but he knew Scott well enough to visualize the shrug that went with the words. “You need me here?”
“Nah. Go find out what’s up. Let me know if I’m needed.”
Making his way carefully along the stones at the creek’s edge, slippery with frost, Granville listened hard, watched for signs of their nearest neighbors, Hodgkins and Kozlowski, though they’d probably gone downstream just as he was doing. Thanks to the stifling fog, sounds were muted, distorted. The yell hadn’t been repeated, so he wasn’t sure how far he’d have to go. He sped up his pace.
Through the thick whiteness, he couldn’t see what he knew was there—the endless sky overhead, the blue grey ice of the frozen creek, the sweep of white to the distant mountains, standing blue against the horizon. It was a hard land, and a stunning one.
Had he been standing on a point high enough to really see what he’d just pictured, Granville knew he’d have seen the miners, spread across the landscape—little dots of brown or black. And the red of their fires, the smoke and the steam they made in heating the frozen soil.
It wasn’t an easy life they’d chosen here. And not just because of the cold or the isolation.
Fighting the elements, facing the dangers, those made comrades out of strangers. But gold made men crazy, and it made some of them mean. And hungry.
It hadn’t been pretty in the summer, when everyone was rushing to find land to stake. But he’d learned in the months since winter set in that there wasn’t much a man hungry for gold wouldn’t do.
He stumbled on a loose rock and his ankle turned under him. Muttering a curse, he slowed his pace a little, watching his footing. He couldn’t afford an injury. None of them could.