07 February 2011

Chapter 33: "Billiard Hall Conversation," Pt 1

Chitina billiards hall
Saloon, card room
& billiards hall at Chitina
“Your move, Johnny.” 
Cap set his stick down and moved over to one of the large,
south-facing windows.   The thermometer showed no mercury.
“It’s been showing colder than forty-below for over a week now. 
Probably closer to sixty-below.  We should be up on the hill in the
cabin where it’s warmer.”
“But boring.  Need to get out of there once in a while.”
It was dark outside, but the clear skies allowed a full  moon to
bathe the small cluster of frontier style buildings in an eerie glow. 
It was still and silent. At the railroad yard was a fully loaded ore
train waiting for the locomotive to be pulled out of the shop so the
load could be run to the Alaska Steamship wharf just beyond Cordova. 
The lights in the depot building were off but the locomotive repair barn
lights were running as usual.  Mikado No. 73 was pulled inside for some
type of repair before continuing south.  The Siberian lifted himself up
to look out the window as well, but seeing nothing of interest, padded
over to the billiards table.

        The air near the glass pane was uncomfortably cold.  The edges
of the glass had iced and frosted toward the center.  Frost had formed
around the door, making it difficult to close.  Cap was keeping the fire
in the pot-belly stove going.  He had brought in a large load of wood
for Smitty when the weather was much warmer.  He opened the door and
shoved another eighteen-inch log into the hole, then slammed the iron
door shut. The pile was diminishing rapidly.

        Johnny made his shot, took a shot of whiskey and positioned
himself for a follow-up.  

        “When are you returning to your trap line, Cap?”

        “I’m not going anywhere until this cold spell lifts.  I’m
staying with you up there in the warm cabin we built for Shee-ya. 
Too cold and dangerous to be out there away from a fire.  When it warms
up I’ll pick up some supplies on Dad’s credit at the Cash Store.  Credit
at the Cash Store.  Sounds strange, doesn’t it?”

Main Street Fire
The Fire which
took out the Overland Hotel in 1917: Across the street (left)
was the Chitina Cash Store.  --Photo courtesy of Bruce
        “It’s just how we have to live, Cap.  Ever since the white man
brought his first trading post he brought us credit.  What can you do
when you can only get cash a few months out of a year?”

        “Live off the land ?”

        “That’s funny, Cap.  But you know how it really is around here. 
Right. Live off the land.  Good one.”

        “Dad still does.”

        “But you bring him goods from the Cash Store on credit.”

        “Oh, yes.  You got me there, Sla’cheen.”

        “He’s not out on his trap line up the Tonsina, is he?”

        “Dad?  He has more sense than that.  He seems to know when the
weather is about to turn cold.  He always returns home until it breaks. 
Said he spent too much time out in it when he was a kid.

        “How is your trap-line going, Johnny?   I haven’t taken as many
pelts as last year, and that was less than the year before.”

        “It’s been the same up the Kotsina .  I’m beginning to think
we’ve trapped out this whole  area.  We may have to look to moving or
extending the trap-lines.”

        “Oh, I don’t know, Johnny.  It has always been up and down.  Dad
is getting too old to change, and he relies on me to keep it alive.  We
seem to be in the right area.  The lynx and fox travel through, all
right.  So do the wolves. There just aren’t as many of them right now.”

        “Do you think it’s improved any down by Taral since we moved

        “Maybe, but that’s spirit country over there.  Dad doesn’t want
to go back. Says it’s engii. Too many kay-yee-geh there. 
Maybe even Chaw-glith-tah-he himself.”

        “The devil?  He really believes that ?”

        “They made bad medicine over there.  Remember the Saghanni
.  They only appeared after the curse of Nicolai.  The ravens
were always there with Nicolai when he lived alone.  It’s best not to
disturb what is there.  We should never go back.  Dad says some of us
may return there as spirits.  He says Nicolai is over there.  Nicolai
will never rest.”

        “I guess I should have asked if you really believe that,

“You don’t ? You will live to believe it, Sla’cheen.”

Main Street
4th of July on Main Street, Chitina with the Fairbanks Saloon on the right.  --Cordova Museum
Johnny missed his shot and sat down on the bench by the window. 
He turned around and looked out toward the cold bright moon.

        “Speaking of kay-yee-geh, there’s Spirit Rock over there,
with Spirit Mountain behind it, looking just as ghostly as anything I
can imagine.  This is strange country we live in, Cap.  
        “But back to the business.  Maybe it’s just that I’m not as
interested in  trapping as I used to be.  Brother Charlie is still there
to help, so we keep it alive, but I was really let down when Rose told
me she did not want to leave McCarthy to come here.  She says this place
is too primitive.”

        “Maybe that should tell you something, Johnny.”

        “I notice you tend to call me Johnny whenever I mention Rose,
but otherwise I’m Sla’cheen. I suppose that should tell me

        “Rose would take you away from us forever.  I don’t want that. 
If you want to be with her, you will have to give up Chitina and the
rest of us, too.  Then what happens when the mine runs out?  Do you
really think there will be a McCarthy after that?  You know what will
happen.  What always happens?  The white men take their precious metals
and they run.  All those gold rush towns from twenty-five years ago that
were all over the territory--how many would you say are still real
towns, Johnny?  There aren’t many left now.  McCarthy won’t last
either.  It will become history just like most of those others.”

        “But Cap,  McCarthy is not a gold rush town.  Yes, it serves May
Creek and Chititu and Dan Creek, Chisana and that area, but it’s there
because of Kennecott.  And Kennecott is there to stay.  Look at that ore
train out on the tracks.  It’s loaded fully, just as it has been for
years.  There will be one tomorrow and the day after that and the day
after that.”

        “Yes, Johnny, it makes you wonder about that deal grandfather
made.  But it can’t keep going on like this.  I know everything up there
looks like it will be there forever, but I can sense that it’s nearing
its end. The people there just don’t know it yet.”

        Johnny stared at Cap for awhile, contemplating Cap’s words. He
sat down on the bench near the window. Then he jumped back up.  It was
too cold close to the window.  He moved over to the stove and shoved in
another stick of wood.  He pulled up a wooden captain’s chair and sat
down right in front of the fire.

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