08 February 2011

Chapter 35: "Returning Crew Meets Tom," Pt 2

          “Soon we’ll be
returning up the line to Kennecott.  We can’t have Kay-yew-nee try to follow us
all the way up there.  I’ll have to get Violet or her new friend Abbey Webley
take care of him while we’re gone.”

          “Isn’t Abbey a dog musher?”
“That’s what
she calls herself, Charles.  She’s taken several of Violet’s dogs and trained
them for sledding.  Seems to be good at it, too. Strange white woman. 
Good-looking, though.
“Charles. I need you to do something for me.”
Charles’s eyes
widened as he looked at Cap, realizing that when Cap talked like this it usually
meant work.  Cap had been like another older brother--a bin’ ga.  Cap was
often the one to give work assignments to Charles when Johnny was not around.
Not that Charles minded too much.  He admired Cap almost to the point of 
hero-worship, much to the embarrassment of Cap.  

difficult.  I need you to take Kay-yew-nee over to Violet’s yard and keep him
tied up for a few days.  At least a week.  If your sister won’t take him, I’m
sure Abbey Webley will. 

          “I don’t want the dog to try to follow us all the way to Kennecott.”
Charles felt
relieved.  This was an easy assignment.  He smiled at the thought.  Charles
smiled readily. He had a very pleasant and unassuming personality which was
almost too eager to please.  Like only a few others Cap had encountered, Charles
did not seem to believe in evil people.  He was confused by racism and bigotry. 
It just didn’t make any sense to him.

          “Sure, Cap. 
Leave it to me.  What ar
e you doing up there this time?  Will you be working in
the mines like before?”
“No, Charlie,
we’ll be repainting the mill.  Maybe do some work on the nearby hospital as
well.  That’s it.  Then we’re coming home for hunting season.”
“You mean you
and Johnny are painting that?  I’ve seen the pictures.  It’s the tallest
building I know of in the valley.  I’d sure like to be there to see it.”
“That’s why
they want us.  We proved ourselves last year painting the tall, new power plant
there, and we worked on top of Erie, which isn’t that tall, but it seems it
since it’s on the edge of a thousand feet of drop-off.  Not too many men will
work at those heights.  It doesn’t bother either skeel’eh or me. Besides,
now we’re experienced.”
“Wow.  Like I said, I wish I could see it.”
“I heard you.
Let me think about it.  You never know what may come up.
Your mother needs you on
the fishwheel, you know.”

          “I know, but
I’d leave the fishwheel at Chitina anytime to go to Kennecott to help you 
.  I can carry my own load well.  You know that.  Find me a way. 
I’ll be there.  I want to be a part of it.  I want to be there while it’s still
here.  I know someday it won’t be.”
“No one else thinks that, Charlie.”
“It will be gone.  Railroad and all.  You’re the one who said it. I believe what you say,
Cap smiled at Charles, then turned his attention back to the scenery.  He thought about
Charle’s words. 

If the other
young Indians heard Charles talk like that, they’d make fun of him--or worse.
They think it’s honorable to voice a hatred for everything white. They can’t see
past the hatred.
          I love the independent spirit of Charlie.  Innocent.  Yes,
that’s it.  No hatred in him.  Just a sense of wonder, like a child.

The train passed over a small trestle as it turned away from its course which ran along
the north ridge of the Chitina River valley.  It was approaching the overlook
above the Kotsina River valley.  Once it reached the Kotsina, it would begin the
final steep descent.   

The train slowed as it headed into the last turn before the steep hill.  From the cupola
Cap could see the rebuilt trestle in the far distance.   It looked just like the
one before it, which was just like the one before it, leaving no indication that
the bridge had washed out only weeks before.

fish wheel
Views of a Native
fishwheel near Chitina: Above: Laurie Nyman photo / Below: UAF Archives

fish wheel 2

The engine crawled down the hill, finally reaching the steep east-end approach of the
trestle, then slowing even more as it crossed over the madly rushing and
swirling heavily silted river less than fifteen feet below.   The narrow trestle
shuddered. So did Cap. Many had died here, including that Irish crew in 1917 and
the fireman aboard  No. 74 when it crashed through the bridge the next year.  
Others had died on this spot before that and more would undoubtedly follow. 
This was the most notorious spot on the entire route. The river which raged
below was unforgiving to all who underestimated her power.

A very thrilled and light-headed  Johnny stepped down from the cab of No. 21 once it pulled up
to the station and then backed up to the repair barn.  Cap and Charles uncoupled
the caboose so the engine could back into the barn for the required repairs.  
The Siberian mutt sat on a large timber, absorbed by the activity of three of
his favorite humans. 
Cap pulled one of the tall doors open.  It was a large, empty space, except that the large,
black iron hulk which was Old No. 100 quietly sat in the darkness of the next
Their work over, the three men walked toward  Chittyna Village, which lay beyond the far
end of the turn-around at Town Lake.  Cap would stay at the cottage this
evening, then head for Lower Tonsina to stay with his father for a few days.
As the three began to pass the depot, they heard the unmistakable roar of the 1917 Indian
motorcycle owned by Tom Weller, a bearded, rough-featured, heavily built man who
always wore a cap and usually had a cigar in his mouth.  Tom owned the Lower
Tonsina Lodge.   The Indian motorcycle circled around and screeched to a halt
just in front of the three Indians.  Tom stepped off the bike and pulled up his
goggles above his ever-present cap.  The man was known as a hard drinking
womanizer, even though he had a very enticing, if somewhat strange, female
companion named Alice to help him run his lodge and keep him company.  
Tom frequently came into Chitina to gamble at the no-name billiards hall.  It mattered little
whether it was pool or cards or anything else, Tom loved to gamble.   He usually
won.  Some believed he walked with a small devil on his shoulder to give him
gambling advice.  His luck was phenomenal.  He was also known to be a sore
loser.  Sometimes his opponents would throw in the towel and let him win rather
than face the consequences, especially if Tom had been drinking whiskey that
“Hey you guys, glad to see you back from Strelna. Any of you up to a game at the old parlor?”
The three of them looked at each other. They had told themselves they’d avoid going to the
no-name billiards hall when they returned.  So much for resolutions.
“Sounds good to me,” Johnny said.  “We haven’t got paid yet, but we’re good for it.”
“That’s good enough for me,” Tom replied.”Let’s go!”
Cap and Charles nodded in agreement, then headed for the no-name billiards parlor.  The dog
rushed ahead and pushed at the door, alerting old Smitty that Johnny was
“How about a buck a game?  Any takers?” Tom asked.  
“That’s awfully high-stakes, Tom, but you’re on,” Johnny responded, throwing a silver dollar
down from out of his pocket. 
“Hey Smitty, got anything good back there?” Tom shouted.  Smitty responded with a bottle of
whiskey and a box of cigars. 
“Good man, Smitty.  You guys want to split on this?  You can’t expect me to do all the
buying, you know.”
“I’ll cover for the other three. I have some change.  My brothers can just owe me for it,” 
Johnny replied, pulling out several more silver dollars.
“Works for me.  Hey, you guys, I’ve got a big party planned at the lodge this weekend.  You
know, one of those spring-into-summer kind of things.  I’ve got my homemade wine
I made just for the occasion.  It’s based on rose hips Alice picked last fall. 
Wine’s my thing.  Also got beer and whiskey.   Alice will be cooking up the fish
and I’m roasting a large pig.  I’ve even found a band.  Well, sort of a band. 
Anyway, big doings.  You guys need to come on down.  Tell everyone.”  
The four of them traded shots at billiards for several hours until all were beginning to
miss easy shots as the effects of the whiskey began to catch up.  Charlie was
not used to so much alcohol. He passed out on the bench early.  Tom was a hard
drinker who rarely showed any effects.  Johnny and Cap were beginning to feel
like they were being set up. They finally decided it was time to quit.
“Look, I got to get back to the old homestead anyway.  Alice awaits, you know.  Need a ride
Cap?  Hop on, I’ll have you there in no time.  I just came out here for a break
and some spices I better pick up before Alice kills me.”
“I was going to stay in town overnight, but since you’ve offered, let’s go.”
The Indian motorcycle roared off with Cap on the seat behind Tom. The bike ripped down the
narrow Edgerton cut-off trail toward Tonsina, not quite twenty miles away,
spewing a large cloud of fine dust.   Cap was beginning to wonder if he would
live to see his father, but Tom was a skilled motorcycle rider from way back,
and he was very familiar with the trail.  They ran through a deep cut passing
three narrow lakes before the valley opened up, with a view of the Copper River
to the right.
Tom pointed to a cabin with a barn four miles out of Chitina.
“That’s my business partner who lives there.  We churn up a little hootch once in a while. 
He just moved up from Valdez.  Bob Reed.  Great guy.  I’ll take you by some
time.  Not today.  Got to get back to Alice.  I’m feeling the need!  Whoa!”
The narrow trail followed a series of winding hills until it reached a popular picnic spot
known as Liberty Falls.   Then the trail entered one last steep and very
winding  descent to the bottom of the hill where log bridge led to Lower Tonsina
Lodge. Cap felt dizzy when he finally stepped off the motorcycle in front of his
father’s cabin just east of the bridge.  Enough of that.

 What a machine. What a name. Indian. I like that.  Wouldn’t
mind having one of those.  Maybe I’ll talk Tom into letting me drive it one day.

“Thanks, Tom.  Maybe I’ll stop by before heading back to Kennecott.”
“Hey, you do that Cap.  I’ll give you credit ‘til you get paid.  No problem.
You ought to try Alice’s cooking.  Out of this world.  Got to blast.  She’s hot.  I’m hot.  I’m outta
Tom disappeared in a thick cloud of dust.
The hills hovered high above Tonsina, completely dominating the small area with their
stony massiveness.   Up a distant hill just beyond the rustic log lodge on  the
far side of the river was the family grave yard.   Cap looked in that
direction.   Somewhere up there his mother was probably watching him.  He turned
around and walked up the pathway toward the cabin.  
Roadhouse at Lower Tonsina

Tom's Indian at his lodge at Lower Tonsina

Toms Indian

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