15 February 2011

Chapter 54:"Cap Takes the Plunge," Pt 1

The ravens are here because of the curse. They only come when a spirit is about to pass on.  Sometimes it’s a human spirit.  Sometimes it’s the spirit which lives in an object . . . Watch that they do not come for you. 
   --Nicolai speaking to Cap in his vision at McCarthy, 1925

Cap, Chief, Johnny

Cap Goodlataw and his father Chief Goodlataw.  Colorization by

  If there was any remaining doubt that Johnny might somehow still be in the area alive and waiting for the right moment to return, it ended with the funeral of his younger brother Charles.  Cap stood at the community hall with hiscompanion Shirley and their three small children, hoping against the odds that by some miracle, Johnny would finally surface.  Charles’ mother, Helen and her companion Fred were there, as was the entire Native community and visitors from up the river at  Klaw-tee-kaw, near Copper Center .  
  Even many non-Natives, including Tom Weller and Alice from the Lower Tonsina Roadhouse, old Smitty and his wife Rita from the no-name billiards hall and card room, dog musher Abbey Webley, stationmaster George Brown and many others from the railroad crew were there.   The community hall was packed to overflowing.  But Johnny was not among them. No one had heard anything about Johnny but rumors since 1927. 

  Several of the members of the party had already started drinking the night before.  Some had never stopped.  Helen and Fred were among them, but Helen was particularly practiced, having outlived almost all of those who grew up with her.  She appeared to be almost sober.  Those who knew her well knew that she was not. The  large number of deaths lately had begun to wear heavily on everyone.  Drinking solved nothing, but it put off the pain.

Native fish wheel
Above: Native fish wheel just downriver from the trestle at CRNW MP 132   --Laurie Nyman

Below: 1913 view of the trestle at MP 132 including the three beached construction-era
paddlewheels in the process of being disassembled.   --USGS

Chitina trestle

  No one knew what happened to Charles.  Some speculated that he somehow flipped off the his new fish wheel platform he had built had.  He  had been testing a new wheel well ahead of the salmon-spawning season in the high water of the river in the shadow of the Chitina Trestle Crossing.  No one else was there.  Violet and Abbey wandered in to check on Charles, only to find the new fish wheel out there, turning uselessly in the muddy, raging water.  There was nothing in the fish basket. It was several weeks too early for the salmon to run.  

  Charles was gone.  A search up and down the river revealed nothing. Old Doc Billum thought he’d take his boat out and check old Taral.  It was obvious when Doc’s search party arrived that no one had been at Taral at least since last year.   This was no funeral because there was no body to bury, as was almost always the case when the river claimed its victims.  This made it even worse.  No one would ever really know for sure what had happened.  The memorial service went on with many close relatives and friends in a state of shock.  The potlatch would follow.  Native Chittyna would be shut down for days until all the visitors finally left with their potlatch rifles, knives and Hudson Bay blankets.

Abandoned Chitina 1939
Abandoned Chitina in 1939:
On the right is the card room and saloon.   --Geoff Bleakley
  As Shirley stood there with the three little ones,  Cap decided he needed to be alone. 
  “Shirley, I want you to stay with Helen for awhile.  She someone besides Fred to be with her.  I just have to be alone.  I worked with Charlie many times over the years.  He was one of the three of us who considered ourselves sla’cheen. I should have been down there on the river with him. This would never have happened if I’d been there. Now he’s the second of the three of us to disappear.”

  “Cap, you’ve blamed yourself for Johnny and now for Charlie.  You probably couldn’t have done anything.  It was probably meant to be. You can’t keep doing this to yourself.  The children need you and so do I, but you haven’t been the same since Johnny just vanished.”
  “I’m going, Shirley. Watch the kids.  Visit with Helen.  Don’t try to follow me.  I need to be alone.”

  Shirley understood. She watched as Cap walked down the long, winding hill, heading, no doubt,  toward the no-name billiards hall.  Cap always had access to the prohibited spirits these days.  He had a bootlegging partner named Bob Read and another partner, Tom Weller, who had supplied all the booze for the many drunken people falling all over themselves at this event.

   Cap supplied old Smitty’s place with bootlegged booze. Now he was walking to his familiar haunt because he knew he would find a drink there and be alone.  Shirley was very concerned, but knew better than to try to interfere with Cap.
  Cap’s walk had a slight stagger as he wandered into the old dusty hall, taking a seat where he could watch who was coming.   He needed to be alone to think. Rita walked out from the card room.  

  “Rita, you’re back from the hall already.”

  “Knew you’d be coming, Cap.  Smitty told me to come back and open up. We know you too well.”

  “I’ve had many good times here, Rita.  How about a bottle and a cigar?”

  “I’m pouring already, Cap.  You’ve been good to us, too. Smitty said to give you anything you want, no charge.”

  She pushed the glass toward the end of the small bar and set a Dutch Masters cigar on a large ashtray along with matches to light it.

  “Cap, unless you want me to stay, I’m going out back.  You’ll be alone in here.”

  “That’s what I want, Rita.  Thank you.”

Young Cap 1898
Young Cap appears in an
1898 USGS photo taken just north of Taral

            Johnny’s been gone now, let’s see, it’s been five years.   No word.  No sign that he might still be alive.  Probably he isn’t.  I feel so vulnerable working  at anything without him nearby to complete our spiritual circle.  Shirley has been good for me.  She brought me three wonderful kids and all the love she had,  but there is no way I can replace my old friend and brother.  Neither of them.

            He could have at least told me what he was going to do.  Did he leave with Rose?  I don’t know.  His child Michael is here with Cathy.  Then there’s Rosalene. I think she’s Rose’s daughter.  And then there’s another daughter who’s name I can’t even remember.  Where is he?

            Now Charles is gone.  I should have been there.  He asked for me to help, but I was drinking.   Now he’s in the river bottom somewhere downstream from that miserable, cursed railroad trestle.  I should have sensed it coming, but I seem to be failing in my spiritual senses. Is it my drinking getting in the way?  

            What am I doing to myself? There’s no use in pursuing this worthless line of thinking. I need to do something. Go somewhere.

  Cap sat glumly sipping on his whiskey, when his mind turned to his partner Robert  Read, whom he was convinced was cheating him out of his share of the bootlegging money.  He had already knocked the guy down in a fight earlier this year.  Scared him half to death.  Read threatened to shoot him, but Cap waved it off. This kind of drunken behavior was uncharacteristic of Cap.

            I never used to be so temperamental.  I’m losing my old self.  It’s just not the same without Sla’cheen around.  It’s completely unnerved me. Or maybe it’s just this alcohol talking.

  He had another drink and began contemplating what to do about this white man who thought he could pull one over on this Native boy. 

            I can think of myself as ‘this Native boy,’ but just let anyone else try to call me that.  ‘Boy’ is worse than ‘siwash.’

  Cap rose up unsteadily and walked out the door.  He would take Tom’s Indian the several miles to the Read homestead and confront the man once and for all. 

            Good man, that Tom.   He knows how much I admire his old Indian motorcycle.  I’ll just pay our partner a visit right now.   Some partner this Read is.  No comparison to working with Johnny or Charlie. We always backed each other up. We’d give up almost anything for each other.  Sometimes I think we did.

  As Cap headed out on the large motorbike, he only got more angry.  He was mad at himself for failing to save his two sla’cheen,  to Johnny for not being there to back him up, and now at Bob  Read, who was a miserable excuse for a partner or even for a white man.  He leaned the bike toward the nearly overgrown pathway which led to the large log home with the turnip patch in the rear.  

  A large shadow crossed Cap’s path as he brought the Indian to a stop. He shut off the engine and  looked up.  Four large ravens circled overhead.  They were flying low, too uncomfortably close for Cap.

4 ravens

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