Birch and Johnny Gakona" - 1916, conclusion
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“We Indians are special too, Johnny.
“What do you mean, Tom?”
We of the ‘Atna’ tuu Ts’itu’ are part of the railroad now. Indian crews
keep it running and we ride it for free. They have had to accept us.”
“Is that a good thing? Sometimes when I listen to Grandfather I wonder.”
“Don’t be fooled by Nicolai. He’s the reason it happened. Better us than
someone else, Johnny.
Besides, so much easier to hunt riding train
than on foot. It’s our railroad now.”
Tom set down his stick and handed Johnny the dollar.
“You’re too good for me. Really good. Have to go Johnny. My wife expects
me to be home. They may need me early tomorrow. Have to be ready. Say
hello to your mother for me.”
Johnny sat down on the bench running along one of the two large windows
facing Main Street. Some of the older men entered and filed into the
card game in the rear to match their skills against those of Nicolai,
who worked the cards with the skill, perhaps even collusion, of Yaabel
himself. All the Native elders knew when he was in the card room.
Nicolai became a magnet for people who simply wanted to be in his
Nicolai excused himself from the card game to resume playing billiards
with his grandson Johnny. The two of them were alone in the room when
the solitary figure of Stephen Birch walked in.
Nicolai was facing away from the door, lining up his shot, when he heard
the door open. Without turning around to look, he greeted Stephen Birch.
“Hello Mr. Ket-chee-ten-eh . It is good you are here.”
It was a nick-name he had given to Mr. Birch long before. Nicolai
equated Birch with the railroad, even though Birch neither built nor ran
it. Birch was just the deal-maker. Nick-naming others was an Indian form
of familiarity. Nicolai turned around to shake the hand of Birch, who
already was extending his hand.
“I don’t know how you do that, Nick. You couldn’t have seen me coming
“Heard your footsteps. Know them well. This is my grandson, Johnny.”
“So you are the Great Man, Mr. Stephen Birch. Pleased to meet you.”
The man’s eyes softened up slightly. He smiled and shook hands with the
“I am indeed Stephen Birch. Don’t know where this Great Man business
came from, though. I’m just another arrogant old fool who’s lucky more
than he’s not.
“I’ve heard of you through your grandfather who speaks very highly of
you. Very glad to meet you, young man.”
Birch had a stalwart and robust presence fitting his position as head of
the corporation which, for all practical purposes, owned or controlled
this part of the Territory of Alaska.
“Please, continue with your game. Don’t let me get in the way. I’ll
challenge the winner. I rarely get to play anymore except when I visit
The door opened again. It was Birch’s aide.
“Sir, if you want, I’ll send over the brandy and cigars now. Will there
be anything else?”
“Thank you, Dermot, that will be all.”
The man nodded politely to the three men and quietly departed.
Johnny deliberately missed the next shot, giving the game to his
Nicolai took the winning shot.
“You’re up, Ket-chee-ten-eh.”
Birch nodded, then started to pull out a cigar. He looked at the chief.
“Care for one? I have more coming,” he said as he extended a cigar
Nicolai accepted. Both men lit up. The chief was just a few years older
than Birch, though considerably smaller in stature. Johnny observed that
somehow the two seemed to fit well and comfortably with each other.
Nicolai waited for Stephen to break the triangle of balls on the table.
“Put up dollar. No shoot for free.”
Birch took a coin out of his pocket and tossed it on the table.
“You have new woman. Good choice?”
“Not if I had to live here, Nicolai. She’s decided she doesn’t like
Alaska, no matter what. Not at all. She wants me to cut the trip short.
A severe storm in the Gulf of Alaska came out of nowhere just as we were
approaching Cordova. It rattled her so badly, I think it ruined her
trip. She got horribly sick on board and needed several days to recover
in Cordova. Now she just wants to go home.”
“Yet you came to Chitina anyway?”
“Unfortunately it was I who made the honeymoon plans. I combined this
with a business trip. Big mistake. Now we’re committed. We have to go on
to Kennecott, even if it’s just for a few days. It may be some time
before I can make this up to her.”
“Engii. Never let woman set course.”
“You live in a much different world, Nick, but I hear that even your own
Native women have changed from what they once were.”
The chief thought about this for a few moments. Then he made a took a
shot and successfully landed his ball. As he walked around the table to
follow up, he looked back toward Birch.
“Your ways infected our women. They no longer listen to us as they once
did. Once I had many women. They obeyed. Your missionaries made chief
give all women up except one. She died. Now chief has no women. Maybe
just as well.”
He aimed and took another shot. It landed.
“No mercy for white man today.”
He landed the eight-ball.
“White man lost.”
He nodded and waved Birch back into the game.
“Put up your coin. New game. Second chance to beat chief.”
The door opened. An oriental waiter from the hotel came in with the
brandy flask and glasses plus a box of cigars. Birch looked at Johnny,
but the chief gave his grandson a forbidding look.
“Grandfather won’t let me drink, but thank you anyway, Mr. Birch.”
The Japanese waiter poured brandy into two glasses and departed.
“Our women served us like that. No questions. No arguments. Your women
no good. You pay for service. Now we pay too. We listen to them
complain. They tell us they can get other men. Better men than us. No
good attitude anymore.
“Maybe you should take her back, this woman of yours. Trade her in.
Plenty of women waiting for rich man like you.”
Birch contemplated the chief’s words with considerable amusement.
“I married late in life . I’m very lucky to have anyone who would put up
with me and my arrogant ways, especially someone as gorgeous as Mary.
This is my fault. I should have planned a honeymoon in Paris. She’s a
sophisticated city girl who doesn’t appreciate places like this. Even
now, she’s sulking in our suite in the hotel.”
Birch looked up to see his waiter shaking his head.
“What is it, Chen?”
“Wife Mary is in main lounge of hotel drinking gin, sir.”
Birch immediately showed a sign of alarm mixed with pain.
“You should go home, Ket-chee-ten-eh. Turn around. Go back to Cordova.
Take ship home, if you want to keep her happy. Can always do business
later, but you only have one woman. I know. I still miss Udizsyu, who
was best woman I had. Better to keep your woman happy than pay later.”
Birch considered this, then racked the balls on the table. The chief
positioned himself for the opening shot.
“Maybe she’ll learn to accept the beauty of this place, but it’s too
late now anyway. The men with me are big investors who are here to see
Kennecott for themselves. I promised them that. Can’t turn back now,
even if I wanted.”
“You have set your own fate, but you are right to live by your words.
Can we help you here?” the chief offered.
“Thank you for being so kind, Nicolai. You have already helped. I wish
the hard-nosed men I deal with in New York were as understanding as you.
Is there anything I can do for you?”
The chief broke the rack of balls and landed one in a pocket.
“Just don’t run over any more of our graves. Difficult to rest in peace
when bones are scattered like bear-kill.”
“You have my word, Nick.”
“And one other matter. I asked you before about Johnny.”
“You were serious? Then so am I. You have my word on it.”
Stephen landed a ball. Then another and another.
“I have you on the run now, Nicolai.”
“Don’t be so sure, white-eyes.”
Birch missed. The chief did not. Then Nicolai ran the table.
“It’s time to let your grandson Johnny back in the game, Nick. I need to
sit this one out. You blasted me right out of the railroad bed on that
run. Give me time to collect myself.”
Nicolai, smiled then signaled Johnny to rack the balls. No one else
could ever get away with calling him Nick. The Great Man sat back and
re-lit his cigar. Both men had each taken a small sip out of their
brandy snifters, but that was it. It was just a formality for them.
Smitty returned from the card room.
“Billum is holding up the game for you. He wants a chance to win his
money back. You better come.”
“Have to go back to poker game. Ket-chee-ten-eh, join us now or later?”
“Maybe later, thank you. I want to test my skills against this young
man. Nick, you go ahead without me. He and I have to talk.”
Birch gave a sly wink. The chief revealed one of his rare smiles, waved
at Birch, then disappeared into the card room followed by old Smitty.
Johnny and Birch were alone, except for the Oriental who stayed with the
brandy and cigars.
“Chen, would tell my wife that I’ll be returning soon?”
Chen bowed and left the room. Birch set up the rack and shot. He
pocketed one ball and followed with a second shot, which he missed.
“Your grandfather is a remarkable man, is he not? He said the same thing
about you. He wants you to have more education--much more.”
Johnny had been concentrating on game on the table. He mentally lined up
a series of shots and proceeded to set himself up. He decided he would
not let Birch win. He could not quite run the table, but was able
to block a likely shot of his opponent.
“You’re a very intelligent young man, but opportunities in Chitina or
even Alaska are very limited. We will help you, if you want. I have
already given my word to Nicolai. It is only necessary that you work for
Birch took the shot and missed. He found he had been set up. Johnny’s
path was now clear to win the game.
“I will ask the railroad superintendent to find you a position. He might
have one at Cascade station. If that’s true, it’s yours if you want it.”
Johnny looked at the man in silence, needing time to digest the
unexpected offer which could change his entire life.
“Say, you shoot like a real pro, Johnny. I’m impressed. You need a
nick-name that fits your style of shooting, something that sounds
catchy. Let me think about that.
“Your grandfather stuck me with Ket-chee-ten-eh, without asking me, so
now I’m going to return the favor. Besides, most all the men who work
our railroad have a special nick-name.
“Gakona. That’s it! Johnny Gakona. Nice sound, isn’t it?”
Johnny smiled. Somehow it seemed to fit. He nodded.
“You taking me up on the job-offer, aren’t you, Johnny Gakona?”
“Mr. Birch, you have your Indian.”
“Interesting choice of words, Johnny Gakona.”
Passing time at the Chitina Depot
--Candy Waugaman collection
Continue with Chapter 14,
"Johnny Gakona Signs On"