Side Trail Story
The worst thing about poverty is being poor and the one man in Hootlani who knew more about both than anyone else was Cheechako Charlie. He was not named
Cheechako Charlie because he was a newcomer to Alaska, a Cheechako, but because he was adept at the fleecing of the same. He was known as Cheechako Charlie because he pretended to be a Cheechako to the gullible and knew about poverty because it was his mission in life to exchange his for another man’s. That is to say, his intent was to trade his poverty for another man’s wealth. Any other man. As long as that man was headed south, down the Noonan Trail, toward Seward and the lower states beyond. He never skinned a man headed north because, as it was a law of nature, men headed north out of Hootlani would eventually come back through town headed south. Skinning a man headed north meant Cheechako Charlie would meet him again.
Cheechako never looked up his enterprise as being the work of the devil. Those were church words, an establishment he had no trouble avoiding because, north of the
49th parallel, there were fewer churches than freshwater wells. There were even fewer representatives of law and order. There was one judge in Nome hundreds of miles to the north and a second in Juneau about the same distance to the south. If there were United States Marshals he had never seen one and the closest magistrate was in Holy Mission a good 100 miles distant. Some communities had miner’s councils but Hootlani was not a mining town in the conventional sense of the term. It did have a mining contingent but the extraction was not done from the soil, it was from the pockets of the stampeders headed south.
It was said that Cheechako Charlie had been born with a silver spoon in his mouth. He denied this and insisted that it was, in fact, a gold spoon. But then, with a smile he would add that the initials thereupon were not those of his family. He came from a long line of hustlers and cons and was in Alaska because it was a natural move for both he and his family. They were the gypsies of the Pacific Northwest, staying in any one locale only as long as the local constabulary and established criminal enterprises were willing to let them remain. When they became too bold, they were arrested. When they extracted too much money from underworld activities they were told to move along in a fashion that made it clear that a matter of choice was not involved.
This all being said, it should be added that there was a bit of honor in Cheechako Charlie. He never skinned anyone in the womb, stole no booty heavier than what he could carry at a dead run and took no Canadian coins. The last was a necessity as Canada had the three things he detested: a quality law enforcement contingent, a list of wanted individuals on which his name was prominent and a telegraph system.
Alaska was a blessing to Cheechako Charlie and Hootlani a gift of a god he did not recognize. He and the residents of Hootlani were of a single mind and a single purpose: to make as much money as possible in the shortest period of time. But there was a rather large fly in this tin of ointment. By the Year of the Big Snow there was not that much money left in Alaska. The big stampedes were over and those with the heavy pokes had returned to from wherever they had come. Those who did not make enough to take the steamship south became a new breed of sourdough; sour on Alaska with not enough dough to get out. So these itinerants drifted from community to community with pack, pan and shovel still hoping for the big score. For most of them it would never come and they subsisted from pocket to pocket to clean-up never making enough to call themselves successful and just enough for another 40 pounds of beans and a wingding wherever they happened to be before the snow fell. There was not a lot of blood to be squeezed from these stones but there were plenty of pebbles to bleed.
In Hootlani, Cheechako was a bit player. He had no connection to any of the taverns or the brothel. That was where the big money was. He only got what the sharps and trollops didn’t. It wasn’t much but it was enough to keep him in beans through the winter. On the streets of the same lower states where his lushes were heading, Cheechako would have been known as a street conman, a two-bit hustler. He was not yet a swindler because the stakes in the Year of the Big Snow were so small. He was thus cursed because he had come into his prime too late historically. Had he been adept at his enterprise half-a-decade earlier he would undoubtedly have retired to some palatial estate on the Mexican coast where there was no snow, mosquitoes were small and the women willing. Or his frozen corpse would have been discovered sinking into the tundra with a shotgun blast where his eyes used to be. Neither of these had come to pass so Cheechako Charlie was left to ply his trade on the ever-dwindling flow of stampeders trickling down the Noonan Trail on their way to the docks of Seward to take a tramp steamer south to Seattle.
Though it had never been stated to him in terms he could understand, Cheechako Charlie was aware of the food chain in Hootlani. Contrary to what sociologists teach at universities, there is no such a thing as a stable human society. There is just as much backbiting, wife-swapping and child molesting in small towns as there is in large cities. Humans only settle into the niceties of society when they have the wherewithal to enjoy the fruits of someone else’s labor. No one becomes rich alone and everyone is best served by looking over his or her shoulder because there is never a moment of rest for the wicked, the rich, the crooked or the law abiding. Society is not a genteel collection of individuals; it is a social setting where life is more akin to a board game from India making the rounds in the British upper class: snakes and ladders. Every throw of the dice, just like the dawn of every day, brings a chance to clamber over the snakes of lust, anger, murder and theft.
Society was, as Cheechako Charlie knew, a very shallow pool in which there were many sharks. He was immune to the maraud because he was so small. As long as he did not grow, he was safe. But his problem was that he was not the only minnow in the pool. The rocks and overhangs were full of minnows, each darting out occasionally to snatch a bite of food and making it back to cover before the sharks noticed their presence.
What Cheechako Charlie also knew was that there were no mid-sized fish in the Hootlani pool. Human society is not the open ocean where each species has its niche and nutrient. In the open ocean sharks went after whale, tuna herring and sea gulls carrion. Each species had a place, from the halibut that plattered on the mud bottom of the Bering Sea to the salmon that surged up the creeks and streams every summer. There were no rules in human society and a shark was just as likely to eat a minnow as to take a chunk out of another of its own species.
What this meant to Cheechako Charlie was that it was not in the interest of his health to skin lushes before said lushes had been rolled by a trollop or squeezed by a card sharp. He got the leavings and he had best be happy with the leavings because that was all he was going to get.
He was not smart but he was not stupid either. Unlike the lower states, life was not a replica of the game of snakes and ladders. In Seattle and Helena and Virginia City, the game was already in play. There were plenty of snakes and very few ladders and there was no way to leave the game board. All the money was in the city so that was where you had to make your play. The big boys and girls had locked down the big money leaving newcomers with the leavings.
But Alaska was different because no city was a game board. Everyone was always coming and going. If you didn’t like the way things were you just waited a month and everything changed. Card sharps got shot, trollops committed suicide, hooch got poisoned, lushes came and went and the only thing for certain was that all playing cards were marked and every trollop used mercury. Alaska was the land of opportunity as long as you were cautious about how you went about the sowing and reaping.
What Cheechako Charlie also knew was that his knees were not what they used to be. He was not the spry man he had been a decade earlier and each winter seemed colder, the snow deeper, the nights longer and the beans more expensive. It did not take a railroad engineer to know that Alaska was a land for the young and spry, neither of which he was any more. Thus he found himself stuck with a choice between Scylla and Charybdis, though he could never have worded it that way. He could continue squeezing a drop of blood from the odd pebbles and hope he would have enough for his old days or go for something big. He didn’t need a thousand dollars to sustain him in his declining days, just a few hundred to get out of town and try his luck somewhere else– and the taverns and brothel dribbled that much away without so much as a thought. What he needed was a not-so-big score that didn’t involve the taverns or brothel.
This, of course, was easier said than done. There was no crack in the system that had not been plugged. Lushes coming south on the trail had money. That was why they were coming south. They were on their way to Seward and America. Those with more than an ounce of intelligence walked right through Hootlani without as much as a glance at the taverns and trollops. Those that could be seduced were – at the northern end of town by shills, ringers, plants and stalls who shepherded them to a tavern where they were sheared and dumped out the back door with just the clothes on their back.
Correctly assessing that he had been fishing for halibut in a trout stream, he took a close look at the men who purposefully avoided the taverns and brothel. He needed an angle. What did these men have in common? Did they have a collective weakness? He realized he did not know because he had been too busy looking in the wrong direction. He had been facing north. His domain of deceit was just south of the most southernly tavern, the last few hundred feet of Hootlani – and the last chance to snag a sucker. If a man made it past him, Cheechako Charlie considered him a lost cause. It was only when he turned around and looked due south did the germ of an idea sprout in his sodden brain. There was only one abode at the extreme south of Hootlani: Father Albert’s First Christian Church of Hootlani.
The First Christian Church of Hootlani may have been rustic in the original sense of the word but it had a number of attributes that made it an ideal location for a house of God. There had been a miniature upwelling nearby which the parishioners had transformed into a well. To waste not they had mixed the artesian offering with earth to make a mud plaster which was then slathered into the cracks between the logs of the structure. The church was ramshackle from the outside but it was toasty warm during the winter on the inside. The water also supplied a basic of life to a truck garden which showed promise of producing more than a mouthful of greens. Berry bushes had been transplanted around the cabin. Someone with knowledge of fishing had constructed a fish wheel which rotated summer-long on the Caribou River. The fish were cleaned and dried on racks on the sunny side of the church, the racks forming a pergola which hid the south side of the church from the riffraff of the Noonan Trail.
What Cheechako Charlie saw was that which the church did not have: locks. Not that any structure in Hootlani had a lock of any kind, it should be added, but Cheechako Charlie dared not steal from any other structure in the community. But the church was the ideal location for theft for the simplest of reasons: even if he were caught in the act, what was Father Albert going to do?
So one Monday he simply walked into the First Christian Church of Hootlani and snagged the contents of the unlockable donation box.
Two hours later Father Albert walked into the largest tavern in Hootlani, an establishment of no name owned by a man who called himself Black Water Billy. Black Water was from a community south of the Mason Dixon Line to which he could never return and talked so slow that it was said he could stretch one sentence from freeze-up to break-up. He had no love of civic order – for very good reason – and reveled in the underbelly of the human spirit. He stood three inches over five feet but was built like a bull and could drink any man under the table. He was in partnership with Nellie the Pig who owned and operated the brothel named, appropriately, Nellie’s. She may have had the face of a pig but she never said no. Neither did any of her girls. Her brothel consumed whiskey by the barrel and mercury by the gallon but was a font of gold nuggets, coins and jewelry.
Black Water Billy was behind a slab of pine he called a counter and Nellie the Pig was thereupon advertising her wares when Father Albert came into the tavern with no name. Black Water had always believed that sooner or later Father Albert would come calling. Black Water had known many a preaching man in his former residence and not one of them had been able to overcome his personal needs. Given long enough every man would succumb to his baser instincts. The only thing that surprised Black Water Billy was that it had taken Father Albert so long. Nellie the Pig, a seasoned professional, simply swiveled toward the man of God.
Black Water didn’t bother to ask what Father Albert was doing in his establishment. He simply filled a filthy glass with whiskey and set it on the counter. Father Albert didn’t give it a glance. He also did not give Nellie a glance. He gave a beatific smile and spoke softly to Black Water.
“Cheechako Charlie came a calling today and took about $10 out of the donation box.”
Black Water didn’t know what to say. Of all the things he had anticipated Father Albert to say, this statement was not on that list. So Black Water said nothing. He just stared at Father Albert with his mind trying to piece together what the man of God was doing in his tavern with a statement like that.
He didn’t have to wait long.
“I want my money back,” said Father Albert in a pleasant tone.
Black Water didn’t know what to say to this either. He looked at Nellie who looked from Father Albert to Black Water and shook her head indicating she had no idea what the man of God was talking about. Everyone else in the tavern stopped talking and turned toward the counter. Black Water was now the center of attention.
“I want my money back,” Father Albert said again pleasantly.
There was a long period of silence and the Black Water finally said, “If Cheechako Charlie took your money, get it back from him.”
“That,” said Father Albert, “is your job. I want my money back.”
Black Water was confused and that fact was displayed on his face. “You want me to get your money back from Cheechako Charlie? Cheechako Charlie doesn’t work for me. Even if he did, what he did he did and that has nothing to do with me.”
Father Albert just smiled. “I guess I am not making myself clearly understood. Cheechako Charlie took $10 from the donation box. I want my money back. If I do not get the money back by next Sunday I am going to send a request to the United States Marshal in Juneau to investigate the crime.”
Black Water was incredulous. “You are going to report a $10 crime?”
“Absolutely,” replied the cleric. “One woman brought down Troy. One spark can set the forest afire. Who knows what one complaint to the United States Marshal in Juneau will precipitate.”
Even with the classical illusion and a word Black Water did not know, he got the point. He did not fight it. He turned about and dug $20 worth of nuggets out of the tin can he called his cash drawer and handed them to Father Albert. “Here’s about $20. $10 to replace what Cheechako Charlie took and a donation. I will make sure that Cheechako Charlie never steals from you again.”
Father Albert took the nuggets without breaking his smile. “Forgiveness is the way of the Lord. A good Christian forgives the sinner.”
Black Water had no trouble understanding that concept.
The last that was heard of Cheechako Charlie came from an article in a Seattle newspaper. It was a filler and noted that a Charles Caruthers, known in Alaska by his sobriquet Cheechako Charlie, had been taken off the steamship King of Prussia in a stretcher. Aboard the steamship Caruthers experienced the extreme misfortune to encounter “several individuals with whom he had business dealings in Alaska that had not turned out well.” Caruthers had then been “beaten soundly and often” on the nine-day trip to Seattle and been taken to a local hospital. “The perpetrators of the beating,” the paper concluded, “have not been identified and are now in Seattle at large.”