15 February 2011

Chapter 55: "Tom's Indian"


Chitina 1953
Chitina in the mid-1950s        --Anchorage Museum of History & Art

          Alice drove into Chitina in her 1941 GMC that Tom had bought for her almost new when he was among the first to take the new Glenn roadway into Anchorage after it opened in 1942.  Now it was 1955.  The old Lower Tonsina Roadhouse had long since burned down. The two of them had settled into a life of trapping which began about the time Cap died in 1932.  When the fire took his lodge, Tom just did not have the heart to replace it. The traffic through the Edgerton was no longer what it had been ten years before.  The optimistic predictions that the area would become a tourist mecca had been premature. The rough, narrow, dusty roads which ran through mosquito-infested country would sometimes be empty of travelers for days. Alice and Tom gave up on the lodge business and moved onto Bob Read’s home site at four-mile, which was much more conveniently located near Chitina.  

          Alice was alone. She stepped out of O.A. Nelson’s  Cash Store with her load of canned goods and spices, wondering what she was going to do with the rest of her day.  She would bake and she would cook, but no one was at home  to appreciate her fine culinary skills.  Alice thought she spotted someone familiar across the muddy street.  The tall, lean, aging Native was staring through one of  the blank windows of the crumbling remains of the no-name billiards hall.

          “Lord, Almighty!  Is that really you, Johnny?”

          She dropped her grocery bags onto the sidewalk. The lanky gray-haired man turned around, facing Alice. A sly smile lit his lined, but impressive face.

          “Alice, could that be you, Tom’s  party-gal? It is you!”
Detail of a 1953 photo of Chitina, showing the Chitina theater, Schaupp's Hardware Store, O.A. Nelson's Drug Store with his Chitina Cash Store across Main Street and on the upper left is the saloon and card room / billiards hall. --AMHA

Below: The Cash Store in 2002 sans its false front, prior to demolition in 2003

Chitina town detail

Ghost town of Chitina in 1953. On the right is the old billards & card hall and the saloon --AMHA
          Johnny stepped off the rotting wooden sidewalk, away from the badly leaning building with the collapsing roof.  

          He had seen enough. On the whole it appeared as if a grizzly bear had cut loose and gleefully torn through the whole place, scattering trash and broken furnishings everywhere.  Light-colored glacial dust was everywhere, covering everything and giving the ruins the look of a useless relic. Amazingly, the front plate glass of one window was still intact.  It had a yellow grimy film due to years of neglect, but it was still in one piece.

          The other window had two large crack lines running through it.  The wooden benches were still there, though they were  knocked over, broken, and suitable only for kindling. Other furnishings were missing, ripped off the walls and ceiling. The main entry door, with its busted window was pushed partly open, caught hard against a  floor that had warped so badly that it held the door jammed permanently into its position. The rest of the floor looked unsteady and dangerous, sagging badly as it approached the table which had crashed through a weakened section of the floor, leaving the table leaning at a steep angle, with two legs still supported by the floor and two completely out of sight where they had poked through to the basement area.  
          Light flooded through the opening in the rear of the room where a door had once led into the card room.  It came from a large gap where the ceiling and roof had caved to the floor in the rear of the building.   
          Alice was totally gray-haired and slightly stooped.  She looked her age and then some. The two met each other near the middle of the dusty road and embraced.  
          “I never expected to see you here again. No one did.  You showed up for that last train ride and then disappeared with your son Michael. Cathy was furious. Rosalene must have been horribly hurt by that.  She thought you’d send for her,  but I heard she has her own family now.”

          “Where have you been and what brings you back now?”

          “Alice, it’s so good to see you.  I wish I could tell you all that has happened, but I don’t have that much time. I just got here. Who’s still around?”

          “Better to ask who’s not here. Tom is gone.  I’m sure you must know about Charles and Cap.  Your mother’s gone and so is Cathy.  Cap’s woman Shirley is gone as well.”

          She looked into his eyes.  He did not appear to be surprised by the news.

          “You knew, didn’t you?  Somehow you knew.”

          “I know now. You confirmed it.”

Lower Tonsina view 1

An Indian parked in front of Nafstead's Lodge, Lower Tonsina  --Bruce Haldeman

Nafstead's Lodge,  Lower Tonsina, early 1920s

Lower Tonsina view 2
          “We really missed you at the two potlatches for Charlie and then Cap, you know.  It was all so sad.  We all thought you must be gone for good.  Then you reappeared for that brief time only to disappear like a ghost. Until this moment, I was convinced you must have met your end as a drunken Indian bum in some large city alley trash pile."

          “Alice.  You really missed me, didn’t you? I can’t talk about what happened out there,  Alice.  Rosalene and Cathy paid for something I thought was the right thing to do.  So did Michael.”

          “Michael, too?” Alice’s eyes widened and a look of shock spread over her lined face.

          “Please don’t ask me to talk about that, Alice.  I thought I was doing the right thing.  Don’t make me re-live it now. 

          “I only learned of my brother Charlie’s death and that of Cap much later.   By then there was nothing I could do. It was my fault that no one knew how to find me.  I came back when I knew the mine and railroad was shutting down thinking I could finally make things right. I only made it worse.

          “What about Tom?”

          She had been waiting for the question.  Like Johnny, Alice had her own delicate memories.

          “Tom is long gone, Johnny.  He used to get drunk and threaten to leave me and the lodge.  He insisted that one day he would take off on his Indian motorcycle and travel the continent.  But that was just Tom as a drunk.  I think he knew he could never find another woman like me that would put up with his shenanigans.”

          “What did happen?  Did he take off on the Indian?”

          “Do you have the time to come with me, Johnny?  I want to show you something. It’ll be worth your while.”

          Johnny nodded silently.  This was why he had returned. He knew it now.

          “Johnny, Tom bought this GMC nearly new in Anchorage thirteen years ago.  He loved it almost as much as he loved that Indian, I swear.  Sometimes I felt like I took second place to Tom’s gadgets, but he always knew how to keep me happy anyway. What an exciting life it turned out to be.  I’ll never regret any of it, except what happened to Cap.”

          Johnny helped Alice pick up the spilled bags of groceries. She pointed to the passenger door.  Johnny found it opened like it was still new.  The inside was in very good condition but for the inevitable toll taken by traveling up and down those rough and very dusty Alaskan back-roads.   Alice headed north, passing through the narrow valley which contained the three narrow pools that the residents regularly fished for trout.

          “Look at that, Alice.  Someone moved one of the railroad line shacks over to the head of One Mile Lake.”

          “Some air service picked it up.  They store cans of Blazo fuel in there.  It came from the trestle crossing.”

          “Really?  Someone actually salvaged the line shack Cap and I worked out of every spring?”

          “That’s the one, Johnny.  Now it just sits out there on that point, looking very alone and lost.

          “As you no doubt noticed when you traveled through, our lodge is gone.  It burned down many years ago.  We’d already gotten more into the trapping life anyway.  Tom moved us into John Read’s place in 1932.”

          “Wasn’t that the man who killed my brother?"

Lower Tonsina Lodge in its hey day   --UAF AK & Polar Regions Archives

          “Yes, and I owe you an explanation.”

          “We were all shocked by what happened and by the verdict of that jury. Tom and Cap were partners with Read in a liquor bootlegging business.  But something went horribly wrong.  I never found out exactly what it was.  Tom would have killed Bob Read himself if he had returned--if the Natives didn’t get to him first--but Read never showed his face after that innocent verdict. Tom just took over his partner’s old place and what remained of the business.”

          “When old O.A. obtained the search warrant that allowed Cap’s relatives to dig for the body, they also found the still.  It was seized.  Tom had to build a new one.  It’s still here right where he left it.”

          “Wait, Alice.  What do you mean ‘dig for the body?’  Was it buried at Read’s place?”

          “In the turnip patch behind the barn.  That’s where young Billum found it.  What a shock for him.  They knew it had to be there.  The body was in nearly excellent condition.  Ground ice kept it intact enough for an autopsy.  The doctor concluded that any one of three bullets that hit Cap would have killed him. He even examined his liver and his brain, looking for alcohol damage. There was none. Cap died a whole man in good shape.”

          “Everyone was in shock for a very long time.  The marshal took Read from O.A. Nelson’s custody and hauled him off.  Probably saved Read’s life. The Indians would have killed him for sure.  No one ever saw or heard from old Bob again after the trial.  

          When the doctor sent the body back, it was the biggest potlatch anyone could remember. Things have never been the same since.  We all loved that man Cap--your brother and Tom’ s friend. He was a real treasure.  Sometimes you don’t know what you got ‘til you lose it.  The man truly had a love of us all in his heart. He was no hater. We’ll remember him a long time.”

          Johnny sat in silence, trying his best to control his emotions.  The truck turned off the road in view of the river.  It followed a narrow, overgrown path.

          “We’re almost there.  You can see the old barn up ahead.  This is what I wanted you to see.”

          Johnny stepped out of the truck and looked around.  The main house was still in good condition.  Beyond it stood a tall dark frame shed with double doors.  The building was showing advanced signs of deterioration.  Many of the shingles had  already blown off roof.  Moss had overrun the remaining shingles. The barn sat in the shade of several large trees which allowed the moss to flourish. The boards had weathered to a dark gray. Some of them looked brittle.  The small windows remained intact.  It looked completely black behind the ancient panes of glass.

          Alice walked slowly, showing obvious signs of the rheumatism she was only too ready to talk about to anyone who would listen.  She walked toward the old building through a narrow pathway lined by tall weeds.  Sections of an old wood fence enclosure could be seen beyond the shed, but most of the area was choked with tall grass, wild roses, fireweed and heavy brush.  Something sinister seemed to lurk out there in the tall brush by the broken log fence.

          “Is that where Read buried Cap?”

          “Yes.  We never went into the old garden after that.  Tom thought it better to let nature reclaim that ground. He said it belonged to the Native spirits. He even avoided going to the barn late at night.  It was creepy out there.

          “Help me with this old door, would you, Johnny? We’re going inside.”

          The double door opened only with considerable effort, as they pulled hard on the metal handle. The door protested as they forced it through the tall fireweed and wild roses which grew right up to the edge of the rotting barn walls.  

          All Johnny could see was blackness.  The sun reflected on the  light-colored  dust, which must have been disturbed by the action of pulling open the doors.  The reflection of the sun on the dust particles  momentarily blinded him.  Then he saw it.  A beam of sunlight caught a piece of shiny chrome.

          “My God, it’s Tom’s Indian. It looks like it’s been here a very long time.”

          “Tom’s pride and joy, Johnny.  He blocked it up off the wheels  in 1942. It’s been standing behind these doors ever since.  Tom never left me for that one last big ride. He rode the Indian into Anchorage to look for a new truck--my ‘42 GMC.  It was the last long run the Indian ever made.”

          Johnny walked inside the musty-smelling interior. It was an old horse stable.  As his eyes adjusted to the darkness he realized that just beyond the vintage 1915-era bike was a fully-intact liquor still with a large brass body and brass fittings at the ends of the copper tubing.  It appeared ready to go,  just like the Indian.  Was the bike ready to go? What a thrilling thought. It appeared to Johnny that it would take very little to bring the old bike back to life.  If anything, it looked like it was sitting there waiting for someone to come along and ride it off into the sunset.

          “It’s yours, Johnny.”

          “Alice, no!”

          “Johnny, yes!  I’ll never use it.  Tom’s gone and I could never bring myself to sell his precious Indian.  Now I’m glad I didn’t.   You’re Cap’s brother.  Cap and you were inseparable once.  And I believe that Cap was probably Tom’s best friend.  At least, Tom seemed to believe it. I knew when I saw you that it was time to give up this bike.  It’s what you came for, isn’t it?”

          Johnny stood there flabbergasted.  This is indeed what he came for. He just did not consciously know why he felt compelled to travel all the way to Chitina.  This was it. This was his link to Cap and the old days. 

          “Don’t say anything.  I don’t want your money.  This is for my Tom.  And for Cap.  Cap rode this bike to his death.  We know that’s how he got here because Bob Read admitted it.  Tom and Cap would have wanted you to have this bike.  It’s only right.”

          It was no longer possible for Johnny to hold back those long building emotions.  An old Indian would be riding another  old Indian right out of the scene of Cap’s last moments on this earth over two decades before.  It was a proud if bittersweet moment for Johnny. Alice made no mention of the tears she saw coming from Johnny’s eyes.

Remains of the railroad crossing at Chitina as seen from the old aerial tram, circa mid-1960s

          “I spent thirteen years living here at this cursed place just guarding that darn bike of Tom’s.  Never understood why.  I just knew I had to do it. I’m free now. Moving to town. Not Chitina. Anchorage. You freed me, Johnny.”

          The bike ran remarkably well.  Johnny rode it into Chitina to fill it up at Sam’s Service pump.  Then he rode the trail through the old railroad cut down to the river bank.  It had become a very different place.  The trestle ends were still in place.  A large section of it rose out of the water on the other side, shooting steeply up the hill.  In the distance he could see two old maintenance cars They were on a siding about a third of the way up the hill, abandoned in a very odd spot where they would one day surely fall down the cliff into the Kotsina river flood plain.

          No way to cross the Copper here, except by the deadly-looking aerial tram swinging in the wind way up there.  Forget that.  No way.  I’m not a daredevil kid anymore.

          He turned the bike around.  A long line of derelict fish wheels lined the riverbank downstream from the trestle remains.

          Goodbye, Charlie. Sorry I wasn’t here for you when you needed me. I can never excuse myself for that. I thought I was doing the right thing.  I was wrong.  I miss you and Cap so much it hurts.  I’ll be seeing you soon enough. Say hello to Shee-ya for me.

          Johnny revved up the old Indian and took off up the hill leaving behind a trail of thick dust as he rushed through Chitina, not stopping until he arrived at Copper Center.  Ahead he had a choice of directions.  One route returned to Anchorage.  Then what? The Alcan route through the Yukon Territory would take him east of the Wrangells on its way to the States.  He would finally see the far end of the mountains that were the home of his ancestors.  How many times had he wondered what was over the distant ridges where the morning sun rose?  He’d seen Canada many times from the Bonanza and the Mother Lode. It was an easy choice. The Indians were ready--both of them.

Tom's Indian
Tom's Indian at Lower
Tonsina   --Bruce Haldeman

Continue with 
Chapter 56: "Chittyna Indian Village"

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