The Thirst for Gold, a short story.
Dawson City, Yukon, during the Klondike
The horse sped by and kicked up chunks of manure that struck the front of Albin’s Mackinaw jacket. He shook a fist at the rider and blued the air with curses. His foul mood further soured as he slogged along the muck-slimed boardwalk to Heaven’s Hearth Inn. He began to contemplate the madness that had driven him to come here. All the best claims had been staked.
Hen cackles pierced his thoughts, just seconds before he heard the rattle of glass panes. The front door of The Gilded Bruin Saloon had smacked against the outside wall after being given a hard shove.
A young bull, his massive head squished into a wide-brimmed hat stumbled outside. His twiggy sidekick was slung over a granite outcrop shoulder like the strap on a haversack.
A pair of scurvy-plagued down-and-outers, one draped in a threadbare horse blanket that fell across pyramid shoulders, the other, a gargoyle with moth eaten gloves that exposed frost bitten digits, pleaded with the corned louts for a handout.
The sidekick waved a boney arm dismissively, slurred them to eternal damnation and ordered them to pull foot.
The bovine, however, whispered in his ear and gave him a wink. His partner chuckled before his mouth curved into a crescent moon.
“Can you stand, Tom?” It was a rhetorical question because Tom was dumped onto the porch before he could answer. He wobbled on new-born fawn legs and had to grab the nearest awning post.
“Ya gotta ‘nuff dust Gabe?”
Gabe nodded. “Plenty.” He squeezed a meaty hand into his pocket and pulled out a caribou-hide poke, after opening the draw strings, his sausage fingers removed a pinch of gold flakes. “You ready for some fun!” He winked and tossed them into the filthy spittoon beside the door.
The beggars raced for the spittoon, shoving, and punching each other, they knocked it over, spilling the vile liquid over the porch. The pair landed in a heap and continued to battle with the ferocity of feral cats, alternatively clawing at the opponent’s eyes and the liquid. The philistines howled with delight.
Disgusted, Albin averted his gaze. The fires of Hell were being stoked for these two. God’s wrath would fall upon those who made a mockery of starvation. His eye caught something that confirmed the Creator’s justice and His benevolence towards Albin. Something glittered in the muck, just an inch from the porch. The fool had unwittingly dropped a significant amount of gold. The combatants were entangled, and the devils were too drunk. Temptation called for immediate action, but Job came to mind . . . patience was always rewarded.
The wait had the lifespan of a sneeze. The gasping corpses tired quickly and agreed to an even split. Both ruffians gave a final whoop and stumbled off, no doubt on the prowl for harlots.
Albin moved swiftly, scooping the gold, he placed it in his red handkerchief. The Lord certainly does work in mysterious ways. As in everything, this had happened for a reason. The gift wouldn’t be squandered, he knew what to do.
He entered the den of iniquity. At first, the patrons took little notice of the large man in the filthy coat, but as Albin wandered past the bar, even the most inebriated threw him looks of revulsion. He side-stepped a painted lady who straddled her client's lap. She wrinkled her nose and demanded the head of whomever had let this pig inside.
Albin paid no heed to any of them. His focus remained fixed on the vault style door at the far end of the room. A solid slab of oak, it was leagues out of character with the typical match-stick construction that littered this shanty town. The most impenetrable portal in Dawson, complete with a heavy deadbolt, its only weakness was a small peephole. Behind it was the fortified lair of Dawson’s Klondike King, Karl Jackson.
The door wasn’t the only thing barring unsolicited entry. Two behemoths stood guard, both armed with Smith and Wesson revolvers. The one on the left appeared to be around thirty. He fell three inches short of Albin’s six-foot-two stature, but every square inch rippled with muscle. His hair was black as Satan’s heart, heavily coated with Macassar Oil and parted just above the left eye, one of a pair that were darker than a mine shaft. His face would have caused a swoon among the fairer sex, had those peepers been less soulless.
His back up had an extra inch of height and an equal portion of muscle. Close-cropped brown hair spiked above hazel eyes that signaled a generally docile disposition that would turn murderous if provoked or commanded to do so by Jackson. Probably mid to late thirties, but the weathered face, and the sizeable scar under the left eye suggested the accelerated aging of a hard life.
A phantom hand gripped Albin’s stomach and he questioned if this truly was God’s plan. He slowed his gait to a shuffle and prayed silently and swiftly for guidance and deliverance. The effect was immediate; a surge of confidence that removed doubt and relieved pain.
There were two powerful motives to see this ordeal through. One practical, the other was the need to lay eyes on a beast who profited from misery and death.
The guards had noticed him, and Albin sensed the entire patronage holding its collective breath. All were hungry for blood. The door men sized him up. How must he appear? A big man covered in horse crap with a wild look in his eyes, headed straight for them.
In unison, their hands moved to rest on their pistols. Neither displayed emotion beyond amused curiosity. The reach for the guns was purely instinctual. No morale code would prevent them from killing him, as one might a pesky rat, but shooting would be bad for business, so unless he made a grievous error, he should remain on this side of eternity.
Albin raised his hands to show that he was unarmed. The larger man nodded and relaxed his grip, but Macassar Oil repeatedly clenched and unclenched the pistol butt. His ambivalence stretched Albin’s nerves.
“Whoa there, partner. Where do you think you’re going?” Mister “docile” stepped forward and raised a hand the size of a Clydesdale hoof, the other had returned to roost on the pistol. His voice had the quality of one who gargled with stones on a daily basis.
Albin came to an abrupt halt, arms still vertical. “I’m requesting an audience with your boss.”
Macassar Oil snorted and locked those mannequin eyes with Albin’s. Not an ounce of life, Lord help me! “You smell like a horse’s ass. You’re not getting back there.”
Unable to liberate himself from the optical bear trap, Albin’s jaw mimicked a fish out of water. The proper words had scattered to the constellations. Get a grip, Albin. Lord, I need this! He took a deep breath and exhaled the fear. An unseen army of angels had just been sent and no harm could befall him. “I think Mr. Jackson will agree to see me.”
Snickers coursed throughout the place, for every part of the exchange was audible now that music and conversation had fallen silent as the grave.
“I am afraid he’s not here . . . Mister?” Scar face declared.
“Stromgren . . . Albin Stromgren. And he is here, because you would not be guarding this door if it were not so.”
The collective gasp seemed to form a vacuum that tugged at Albin’s jacket. Obviously, nobody spoke to Karl’s men this way. Nobody above ground, at least. But Albin Stromgren was far from a nobody.
The smaller man ripped his pistol from the holster and aimed the muzzle between Albin’s eyes.
“You’ll be cold as a wagon’s tire in a second, and the worms will starve on your pea-sized brain.” He blew at a greasy strand that had fallen over his deadwood face.
“Easy there, Utah, we don’t want the horsemen in here.”
A magnesium flash of reason lit the uppermost levels of those bottomless pits. The Smith & Wesson was reluctantly slid back into the holster. “I already told you, horse’s ass, he ain’t here.”
Shaken, but certain that divine power had prompted the intervention, Albin replied calmly, “I’m going to reach into my coat pocket. There’s something of interest.”
“I’m sure your life might be of interest to you. Be real slow, if anything that cuts, shoots, or explodes comes out, you’re dead. Understand?”
“Utah, what did I just say? Besides, this old codger is too slow for a killer.” He gave Albin a derisive look and tapped his head. “I think he’s just daft. Let’s just see what he’s got. It could be fun.”
“Of course, Longhorn, he’s crazy! The fool comes barging in like he owns the place. Exactly why we can’t trust him. What say you, crazy old loon?” He sneered. “What do you have for us? A piece of crusty earwax that you think is gold?” He wiggled his trigger finger. “It’s gotta real bad twitch.”
Would the archangel Michael drop a speeding bullet? Albin’s fingers fumbled in the pocket and retrieved the handkerchief. He fought the squeak in his voice as he opened his palm. “I have this.”
Utah grimaced. “A filthy muck ender? You’re crazy and disgusting. Come on, Longhorn, let me feed him to the grizzlies.”
“Wait till I open it,” Albin said irritably. He gently unfurled the cloth to reveal the gold.
“Well then,” Longhorn rubbed his hands together. “That changes things a mite.” He pointed to Albin’s coat. “Why don’t you go home, toss that horse’s blanket and come back.”
Albin shrugged. “I’m afraid this is the only coat, and if I go, I take my offer to a competitor. I’m sure Mister Jackson will be pleased.”
Longhorn jerked his head towards his partner. “Search him.”
Utah growled and bared his teeth like an angry badger. “Leave that stinkin’ thing out here. I ain’t touching it.”
Albin removed his mackinaw and dropped it in a corner.
“Empty your pockets. Any funny business and you’re dead. Understand?”
“Of course. I have nothing in my pockets, other than my hotel key.”
Rough hands searched Albin, when they reached his shoulders, they slid to his neck and squeezed hard enough to choke. Fortunately, it was only brief, and the second he was released, Albin coughed as he sucked in a lungful of smokey air.
“He’s clean. Well, no weapons, at least.”
Longhorn knocked on the oak door. A hidden slot snapped open, just below the peephole. He bent down and spoke to someone inside. “We have a guest who would like to speak to the boss. He’s got some color.”
A muffled voice responded, and the slot slammed shut. The moments crawled at a glacial pace before the panel reopened. There was another indecipherable verbal exchange, before a loud clunk as the deadbolt shifted. A wall-thick door opened on medieval style hinges that could have supported a draw bridge.
Longhorn jerked a thumb towards the doorway. “Ace will take you to the Boss. Be respectful and keep your hands where they can be seen. You got it?”
Albin nodded as he tried to swallow the hedgehog lodged in his throat. He measured every step on legs about to fold like deck chairs and entered a narrow hallway. If the walls had been adorned with art instead of grey paint, Albin’s shoulders would have knocked them off.
He’d expected a lavish office with fine furniture, but this had the feel of a mine. Disappointed, he followed the human coatrack. An ugly specimen, the man’s head was an oversized potato. His close-cropped blonde hair had retreated with the Redcoats of 1812 and exposed a mess of growths that matched those of spud eyes. Ghostly pale, his glow-in -the-dark complexion would’ve brought Ebenezer Scrooge to immediate repentance.
When they were halfway down, Ace turned his crater-face back towards Albin. The larger man was struck by the image of a deformed and furless rat eternally scurrying along this dimly lit alley.
Ace offered a twisted smile that exposed crooked and decayed tombstones. “Wait here, Mister Stromgren.”
The gangster turned away, walked over to another reinforced door. He worked a brass knocker shaped into a lion’s head. A gruff voice from behind it, ordered them inside.
The walls constricted around Albin and he swore he was about to be funneled into a meat grinder.
Ace put a claw on the doorknob, but then paused and looked at Albin’s boots. “Leave those in the hallway. Remember to do exactly what the Boss says.” Orbs of blued steel glared at Albin.
He patted his gun. “I’m always watching.” Ace pushed the door open.
Another silent prayer accompanied the fumbled boot removal. Sweat dripped from Albin’s nose as he bent over to place them carefully along the wall. Irritated at his cowardice, he wiped the moisture from his face, rose, and stepped through the doorway.
The level of opulence in that room stole his breath. The utilitarian hallway had been a façade. Probably built narrow to channel enemies into single file in the event of an attack.
The interior resembled the office of a bank president. Raised cherry wood panels clad the walls from floor to ceiling. Fiery tongues crackled in a white marble fireplace. Their rhythmic dance was reflected by the chevron parquet floor. A carved lion’s head, just below the mantle, bared its teeth at the moving shadows.
Albin cautiously divided his attention between the splendor and the smoke shrouded mahogany desk, behind which sat a thickset statue that must have been imported from Easter Island.
“Don’t take this the wrong way, Mister Stromgren,” the statue spoke in a congenial manner. A brief pause was followed by a red glow that marked the location of the mouth. A meaty paw materialized and gestured towards a leather armchair in front of the acre sized desk. “In your, ah, current state, I’d rather you stay off of the Louis XV.”
That value of the chair and desk alone, never mind the cost of shipping, would have fed Dawson for a year. Here was a man who’d baked his own bread, but with pilfered ingredients.
A beautiful mahogany roll top writing desk embossed with marquetry floral patterns, caught Albin’s peripheral. There was more to explore, but he dared not deviate his gaze.
The cigar was stubbed out and Jackson waved the haze away. A cleared line of sight exposed a bald and pudgy man with broad shoulders. Probably not physical specimen of his youth, but still capable of sending victims to the bone box.
Albin stood obediently and listened to the tick the Yorkshire Longcase clock. They were alone in the room, but there was no doubt that the proceedings were being observed.
“I was told you had something that might be of interest to me.”
Albin gingerly produced the handkerchief and displayed his treasure.
“Hmm,” Jackson squinted at gold. He chuckled. “I’ve swallowed more color in a glass of Goldwasser. Is that all you got? This is what you’ve stunk up my office for?”
Albin saw through the veneer. The greedy always revealed their true core. The gold in the handkerchief may have been outweighed by the amount contained in Jackson’s pen, but he’d scrape a flake from a pig’s rear, should the animal swallow it. There was one answer only . . . more.
Albin rewrapped the handkerchief and slowly turned towards the door. He took a few steps towards it, keeping an ear out for protest, but none came. A few more paces, his sized thirteen feet pounded on the floor for emphasis. Only the clock provided feedback and it seemed to applaud his exit. Another four strides and he’d be in the hall. Had he misjudged? Was the Klondike King wired differently?
Two more heavy steps and finally came the sound of a heavy body shifting on leather, followed by a deep sigh.
Albin walked to the door and rested a hand on the knob. He bit his cheek to suppress a grin. Now for the callback.
A loud cough came from behind. Choking on regret? Albin couldn’t remain on the spot because it would signal desperation. He turned the knob and began to open the door. Jackson cleared his throat.
Not good enough, Jackson, I need to hear you say it. Albin crossed the threshold, the man was stubborn, but soon, hopefully. One foot in the hall and Ace appeared, pistol in hand. Too far! He’d pushed this way too far!
“You don’t just walk out on the Boss, Stromgren. Stay a spell and enjoy some of the best hospitality you’ll find north of a Texas barbecue on Uncle Sam’s birthday.” Ace sneered and pulled the gun another inch from the holster. To decline the “invitation” meant a permanent numbing of the taste buds.
Albin’s mind squirmed with the vigor of a snake in an eagle’s claws. The little freak wouldn’t dare, not in here, would he? Surely the bark of a gun would be heard, and the Mounties summoned. Then again, perhaps this place was a vault, able to ricochet sound in an endless cycle, until expiration. To devil with the noise, there’d be a body to dispose of! Speak up, man! State your reasoning and save your life! But for the second time that night, Albin was mute, crippled by a chalk tongue dissolved in heavy rains.
It was just as well, a creature like this couldn’t be bargained with, for the troll craved blood, not gold. A body could be incinerated, given the proper tools and knowledge. “Just having a Texas barbecue, Constable. Want some long pork?”
Jackson was the key . . . the only one who could muzzle Ace.
But why would he? Why spare a mad drifter, who’s life had the worth of a fruit fly’s? The “King” and his musketeers probably believed Albin wouldn’t be missed, and therefore no report would be filed with the Mounties. Time to gather the backbone and reveal his true identity.
“I came here by boat!” Albin yelled. “The Seraphin carried us from Seattle to Saint Michael and the ill-fated Wilton brought us downriver, that is, until that drunkard Beckett ran her onto a shoal! Miles of travel on foot accounts for my current appearance! I am a man of means and of connections! I carry my tickets, sewn into my jacket, as proof. If you do this, my people will cry for justice and the Law will have no choice but to investigate!”
A mirthless belly laugh emanated from the office and the wiry killer added his own brand.
“Stromgren, you are by far the best entertainment for today! Bring him back here, Ace. We’ll hammer out a deal.”
Entertainment? Albin was conflicted between relief and anger, as he stepped back into the one room palace.
The despot hefted his bulk off the chair and plodded towards an ornately carved bar hutch, from which he retrieved a bottle of whiskey.
Albin shook his head but thanked him.
Jackson shrugged. “Suit yourself.” He filled a crystal goblet to the brim, took a sip, and sauntered back to the desk, with bottle and goblet in hand.
“So, Mister Stromgren, you are a man of means, I see.” The half-full bottle landed hard against the green leather desk cover. Jackson remained standing as he swept his beverage free hand around the room. “I’ve noticed you admiring my décor. I like it too. As a man of your standing can appreciate, most of these pieces are from the early part of this century and older.” He gave a dismissive wave, then continued. “I don’t care much for anything newer than the twenties.” Thus, an in-depth sermon was launched about each article, with a heavy emphasis on value and acquisition. The deviant was a library about the finer things.
Fascinated, Albin was fully engaged, and flicked away the guilt that tugged at his ear. He would beg the Father’s forgiveness when he crossed paths with the starving. Lucifer’s lair was beguiling.
“And here, this right here, is the soul of this place. You understand, Stromgrem?” Jackson caressed the top of a Regency-Era mahogany card table. “You like games, Stromgren?”
“I-I,” Albin was at a loss. Gambling was a sin and he wasn’t a card player, at least not anymore. As a boy, he’d enjoyed Skitgubbe at the kitchen table with his brothers and cousins, but this table had seen far less innocence. The whole tour was bait to get him to this point. Albin was a pawn in a game, an object of amusement for a bored monarch.
Stone grey eyes deadpanned Albin in demand for the inevitable response. Albin’s tongue was lashed by fear and morals ingrained since early childhood.
“Simple question, Stromgren.”
Albin cleared his throat. “Is this for sport, or is there a reward?”
The granite mouth bent into a smile. “We each have something the other wants. I want the gold, I always do, but what is it you want? Food? New clothes? A bath?” He winked at Albin. “The company of one of my girls? Of course, you’ll need the last two before any of them will ‘accompany’ you.”
“A claim of my own. What I came to Dawson for. It seems they’ve all been spoken for.”
Jackson snapped his thick fingers, bent over his desk, and retrieved a large scroll from the top drawer. He unfurled it across the desktop, revealing a map of every creek and river surrounding Dawson.
Albin’s heart palpitated at the sight of numbered claims.
Jackson fingered a spot at the juncture of the Bonanza and Eldorado creeks. “There’s your claim. Well, not yet. Only if you win.”
Albin moved in to get a closer look. “Gold Hill?”
The boulder-sized head shook. “Nope. Those are taken. French Hill, just next to it, on the other side of Irish Gulch.”
Albin used the scale at the bottom of the map to determine that French Hill was about fifteen miles from Dawson. Not a bad trek, considering how far he’d already come. Bonanza and Eldorado were renowned for their yields, so why not try French Hill? The proverbial fly in the ointment was that claim eleven sat on a hill above Eldorado Creek rather than along the creek itself.
Jackson read his mind. “It’s a bench claim, and they’ve gotten a bad rap. Everyone wants the creeks but,” he pointed to his temple. “The smart folks think differently. Besides, that’s all that’s left. Take it or leave it.”
Albin sighed. He’d never heard of a bench claim, but the Klondike King waited for an answer.
“What kind of game?”
“Name it. I’ve got cards and dice, even a roulette wheel.” He looked at the clock. “I haven’t got all night.”
“Can I just purchase the claim? With this gold?”
Jackson burst into laughter. The man’s temperament was unnerving. “I like your humor. Stromgren, you barely have enough dust to buy a pickaxe, at least by Dawson prices. I don’t really need your gold, though I’d be happy to keep it. What I want is some fun. Oh, but I do like to help the less fortunate, such as yourself. Have you dozed through my entire presentation? I have it all, Stromgren! So how about it? Allow me to choose. We’ll play Devil’s Dice. The rules are simple. Number one is that the one who rolls the highest total out of three rolls each, wins.”
He opened a small drawer in the card table and grabbed a pair of ivory dice. “Rule number two, we use these. You can examine them, Stromgren. You’ll find them to be of standard weight. I’m not a cheat. I’ve come by my wealth with old fashioned hard work.” He gave the dice to Albin. “See for yourself.”
Albin examined them and found nothing out of sorts. He dropped them on the table.
“Rule three, the dice must remain on this table after the toss, anything that falls will be disqualified. They must bounce at least once. We shake on this before any dice are cast. A gentleman’s blood oath if you will. Now pay close attention to this one, Stromgren.” The stones narrowed to pebbles. “I’m honest and will always honor the contract. What about you? What kind of man are you? I’ve placed my trust in you, but I hope it’s not misplaced. If that trust is broken, you’ll meet a bad end. Dawson is a viper’s nest full of no-accounts, and I’ll not be victimized.”
After the threat had been delivered, Jackson’s countenance shifted like the tides. He extended his right hand and grinned. “What about it? Do we have an accord?”
Albin gulped but inquired about the obvious. “So, if I win, I keep the gold and the claim is mine?”
Jackson chuckled, “Well, yes, but I’ll require a thirty percent royalty.”
Albin was initially stunned, but quickly grew indignant. Of course, the royalty. Anyone who dubbed himself a king could demand such. But “King” Jackson wasn’t omniscient. He couldn’t possibly account for every ounce.
“I suppose that if you win, I hand over my gold and leave with nothing. Is that the way of it?”
“Why, you’re a weasel impossible to catch asleep! I suspect that a man of your wits will take my generous offer.” The hand moved closer.
Albin took it. “You have yourself an accord.”
The massive hand swallowed Albin’s, the way a snake ate a mouse. “Trekking miles through an Alaskan winter, and now wagering with the King of Dawson. I admire your moxie.” He pointed to the dice. “You first.”
Albin took a breath deep breath and rolled. The ivory pair skittered halfway across the table and stopped on a total of five. Way too low.
“My turn,” Jackson snatched the dice and tossed them. They bounced and rolled for a lifetime, before producing a devastating sum of nine.
Ace whooped and clapped.
Jackson smirked, and handed the dice to Albin. “One down.”
This time he managed twelve. Unless Jackson tied, the round was his.
The crime boss clucked his tongue. The pair shot from his hand and landed on ten.
The score was nineteen to seventeen in Jackson’s favor. The challenger rattled the dice in his hand and began the Lord’s prayer. “Our Father—” but nerves weakened his grip and he watched helplessly as the pair tumbled to the floor.
“Pleading to the Almighty, huh? Getting nervous, Cheechako?” Ace said.
“Ah, give the poor fella a chance, will ya?” Jackson grabbed the dice and handed them to his rival. “Try again. Last chance.”
A white-knuckled cast earned a seven. This put him five points ahead. Better than a couple, but too close to the firing line for comfort.
“Well, partner, this is it. Though I believe you have more to lose than I,” he gloated. The release appeared nonchalant, but the mouth twitch spoke volumes about Jackson’s attitude towards losing.
Both dice performed a series of lackadaisical pirouettes before coming to rest on snake eyes.
The room spun, and Albin squeezed his head to stop it. He’d won! Exuberance changed to fright. What now?
“You lucky swine!” Jackson was a locomotive boiler about to blow. He flung the dice into Albin’s chest. “Get out of here, before I kill you!”
Albin raced for the door, but the muzzle of Ace’s revolver stopped him cold.
“Leaving so soon? Don’t you want to collect your prize?” Ace giggled like an entity that dwelled beneath the cellar stairs.
“Go ahead and shoot, if you must. If I leave here empty handed, I have nothing left on earth.” How was it possible to hear his own voice above the blood rushing in his ears?
Laughter bellowed from behind Albin. Ace cut loose with another hellish peal and he lowered the gun.
“Stromgren, you should have seen yourself, just now! Did you really think we were going to send you to the Maker after you’d won fair and square?”
The blood drained from Albin’s face and pooled at his feet. What was all of this? What kind of sick minds threatened death for amusement?
Enough of this! I’ll take my gold and flee. Albin had moved one step towards the hall when a document was thrust into his hand.
“Take it and go, Stromgren, your antics are worth every ounce! Don’t worry about registering your claim, I’ll see to it. But don’t forget about my thirty.”
The exit was a blur. Albin collected his boots and jacket, then left the building with his feet on fire. The pace was maintained for several blocks before the realization of the victory struck him. Life had changed with the roll of a dice! Literally! A mitt full of gold AND a claim to boot! Hallelujah! He leapt from the boardwalk and click both heels together. He couldn’t wait to tell Isabella that he was officially a prospector!
“Is he gone?” Jackson took a sip from the whiskey glass.
“Yes, thinks he’s all that, now that he’s defeated the legend of Dawson. How’d you want this one done? Accidental trampling by a horse? Drowning in the river? Or a mining mishap?”
Jackson yawned. “Too many drownings, pick another method. I don’t care which, long as the Mounties stay out of it and you remember to nab the gold and fake claim document. Have fun. I’m going to take a nap.”
“Sure thing, Boss.” Ace closed nodded and closed the door behind him.