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Chapter One

There was a man with a canoe up ahead. He took a few steps and stumbled, the big wooden craft wobbling precariously above her. Elizabet Lauderman kept her eye on the man, his canoe. She worried that if he fell and the canoe came sliding down slope, it could wipe out a hundred men. And her. Below Elizabet there were three men who were pushing and pulling a piano up the hill. She could hear them calling out to each other.

“More over there. Pull men, pull!”

“No, no. Harder boys,” she heard a crack. The piano was tilted to one side. One of the men had fallen, the rope whipping out of his hand.

Elizabet stepped out of the line to rest. There was no break in the lockstep of the men on the trail. She knew it might be an hour, maybe two, before she’ll be able to get back in. But her long woolen skirt was sopped at the hem, where it had been swishing in the snow, and it was soaked all the way to her knees. It felt heavy like it was her that was dragging a piano. She remembered Aaron telling her that she could only pack her skirts and some evening wear, that there is a dress code—even way out here at the end of the earth—and properly attired ladies must wear skirts. Elizabet decided when she gets to Scales, before the ascent to the pass, she will buy some trousers from the merchants. Aaron be damned. She saw a group of women, hard talking actresses, pretty girls they were, and they were wearing trousers and thick boots. Their modesty was displayed in their corsets hidden away under coarse woolen cloaks. Most of them had fur lined bonnets instead of hats.

From her place out of the line, Elizabet leaned against a chunk of ice but her weight carried her down until she was sitting on it. She was too tired to resist the lure of a spot to rest. The ice she sat on was slick as it had been worn smooth from others who had stopped there to rest. Close by was a scrap of blanket someone had dropped. It was part of the trail of cast-off goods people had left behind, desperate to get to the top. Elizabet didn’t have anything to throw away, nothing that would make her load lighter, except her sodden skirt. Her travelling possessions—her trunks, her mandatory year’s worth of food—were being hauled up the mountain by packers, Indians who were the first to see any money from the gold that was supposed to be strewn over the creekbeds up at Dawson, that paved the streets, gilded the town. She had heard the stories. Aaron did too. They had come to see for themselves.

Where was Aaron? She looked up ahead, scanning the dark line snaking up through the dirty snow, the packer’s mules slogging up the trail. She looked for a short balding, hatless man, wearing a stylishly long tailored coat. He should be easy to spot in the line but Elizabet could see no trace of the man. Aaron was going to take a heavy pack to the summit, wait for her there and then take the chute back down the hill to retrieve the next load. The Canadians demanded that every man or women take enough provisions to last a year, nearly a thousand pounds worth. The packers were expensive and Aaron was frugal. He didn’t want to pay the packers to haul all of their possessions over the pass.

Elizabet saw two young men going down the hill, passing her the other way. They looked miserable, caked in mud, their frozen hands jammed in socks as mittens.

“Boys,” Elizabet said, trying to get their attention. “Could you men tell me if you have seen a small man who is not wearing a hat and is wearing plaid trousers? Aaron Randalf is his name. Have you seen such a man?”

One of the men kept his head down, ignoring Elizabet. The other one looked past her, down the hill, and spoke in a monotone. “Lady, there’re thousands of men on this hill. Thousands more on the other side. Thousands more to come. You think I’d know one man from another?”

“But this man,” she sputtered, “is not like the legions you have described, your thousands. This man is Aaron Randalf, he’s no miner, no sir, he’s just a—“

The second man now burst out laughing. He laughed so hard that he slipped in the wet snow and fell down. He was still laughing on the ground, and could barely contain himself when he stood up and faced Elizabet.

“There sure are a lot of men on this mountain, a few women too. You got all kinds o’ men up here but I ain’t seen no miners.” He stood looking at Elizabet like she was a curious thing.

The first man spoke again while he clapped his hands together against the cold, eager to continue down the slope. “I don’t know what happened to your Aaron.  Camp Pleasant is up ahead and Sheep Camp’s not much further. He might’ve made it there and he’s having a grub steak right now waitin’ on you, Ma’am. Or maybe he made it up to Scales and he’s looking at the part of the trail that kind o’ goes straight up and he’s wondering like all o’ us are wondering if he wants to be a miner after all.”

The other man started laughing again. “My name’s Bob McGraw and you’ll have to excuse me, Miss,” he choked out, “but unless your Aaron is mighty special, I wouldn’t go worryin’ your pretty little heart about it. With all these men on the trail, I’m sure you could find something.”

Elizabet’s reaction was instantaneous and immediate. She shot up from her block of ice, cocked her arm and reached out to slap the fresh man. But he ducked and Elizabet fell over on the ground, the wet snow getting in her cloak, claiming the last piece of her outfit that wasn’t wet and damp and cold. She started to cry. It wasn’t just the cold or the mud. It wasn’t just the hard climb, or even the pitiful spectacle of having to ask strangers what happened to her escort. But as she struggled to get off of the damp cold ground, to regain her feet, she knew that Bob McGraw was right. It was this knowledge that unloosed the tears that were sure to freeze on her face.

Back in Cambridge, Aaron was a clerk at the bank. He was a Randalf, friends of her parents, the old-moneyed Laudermans. Her folks likely loved Aaron’s family—his name—more than the man. Elizabet’s parents had doted over her, sent her to finishing school, had their hearts set on a season full of debuts. She knew spiral staircases and crystal chandeliers. She grew up with breakfasts on the veranda, with watching men compete in crew competitions, the sleek shells gliding up the river with a half dozen men rowing in unison.  Laying there in the snow, talking to a couple grizzled strangers, she remembered those days, could almost taste the béarnaise sauce and the hot stew, could see herself sitting in a pretty silk dress and sunning herself on the portico. But she also remembered looking out at the river, the sailing yachts going by—a hardy wave from the captain—she remembered the glittering balls her parents would throw, and the feeling that this wasn’t the life she wanted to live, that there was something else out there and she knew she was bound to find it. She loved to read about the wonders of the west and the men who were brave enough to seek their fortunes there. There were the giant trees in California, the canyons in the southwest, the marvels of Yellowstone. There were the cattle drives—rough men, brave men, who rode the trails—and there were the railroads spreading out across the land like tentacles, so many directions to go, so much life, it made Elizabet’s heart ache with every one of her parents’ stuffy receptions she had to attend. And then there was the day she read, in the Globe, about the steamship.

When the steamship Excelsior docked in San Francisco, the newspapers reported that it carried half a million dollars in gold mined from claims in the Yukon. The next day, the Portland docked in Seattle and the men aboard were also carrying heavy luggage, a ton of gold. Every day, screaming headlines and grainy pictures told the story of huge gold strikes in the Yukon, a remote Canadian providence next to the American possession of Alaska. But it wasn’t about the instant wealth or the luxuries that gold could bring that intrigued Elizabet. It was the men: the wilderness drifters, the mountain men, the men with the colorful names, the men who squeezed the marrow out of life until they finally got something in return.

It was Bob McGrew’s hand on her elbow that brought Elizabet out of her reverie, brought her back to the stream of humanity that was slogging up the hill while a few men went the other way, sliding when they could. “No hard feelings, Ma’am,” he said, peering at the sniffling woman like she was a rare bird in the jungle. “I been out here a long time, and well I…I reckon I’m not so good at talking to a lady, you gotta understand—“ He gestured at the grim men in the line, inching their way up the hill, a stream with no end. “This place does something to ya, I swear it does. I didn’t mean ya no offense…” His voice trailed off and she clasped his arm, his hand still holding her at the elbow.

Elizabet said, “I apologize for my own behavior, Sir, but this is just nothing like I…like I expected.”

The other man piped up. “I’m sorry Ma’am but my name’s Hank—the boys sometimes call me Hillside Hank around these parts—and I gotta tell you something before me and Bob leave you to go find your Aaron. Ya know them boats down there in Skagway? The ones that come crammed full of people two, maybe three times a day? Them boats, every one of ‘em, is full of men who have come to a land that ain’t what they expected. Most the women too, except for—“ He stopped and looked her up and down, pausing at eye level, looking into her eyes, “but I’m pretty sure you’re not one of them.”

Elizabet blushed to the extent her cold cheeks would allow. “No. I don’t think I’m one of them,” she sighed. She looked down the hill, following the line of souls until it dropped out of site. “I don’t think I’m one of them,” she said again, “but I’m not sure just what I am.”

Elizabet thought of Aaron, how she thought of him as more of a childhood friend, someone to talk to at the endless parties, but when it was time for her to come out, she didn’t have the heart to tell him her true feelings. And then came the day he was with her when she had the newspaper spread out on the couch. He listened attentively while she read to him about the gold strikes. And Aaron got excited too. But it was different for him. It was the idea of cutting the purse strings, of having his own set of wealthy friends, his own mansion. Gold became the only thing he would talk about. The articles made it look so easy. And there were the ads: the railroads, the outfitters in Seattle, the steamship lines. Between Aaron and his talk of gold, of the money they would make, and the ads that made it seem like only fools wouldn’t head to the Yukon, they knew they were bound to head west. Women were needed too. Elizabet would carefully cut out the ads. They needed actresses and showgirls, women with nice figures who could dance. She didn’t tell Aaron about her girlish dreams, but she saw herself on stage with adoring men watching her dance lively numbers. Afterwards she could have drinks with the miners, learn about their lives. They might show her their claims, how to survive in the wild, live on the trail. In her visions of the gold fields, she didn’t see the men as becoming wealthy like her parents, retiring to mansions and a life measured in seasons, of socials, of the endless humdrum of boring talk. Instead, she saw these men taking their money and going off to buy ranches in Texas—maybe even going off on cattle drives—of travelling to remote villages in South America to help the missionaries build churches or maybe they’d sail to the orient, setting up a shop as an international trader of fine silks and spices.

Elizabet bid farewell to her new friends who were heading down the hill to bring up another load of supplies. She managed to slip back in the line and caught up with Aaron at Camp Pleasant between the two rickety horse bridges. He was having a bowl of thin soup—really just broth—and staring into space, shivering against the cold. The provisions he had brought up, his pack and the tools he had carried in his hand, were scattered around him.

“I talked to a man,” he said, not looking at her, “he says we’re only about half way to the pass and that’s only half way to the end of the trail. And then we still have five hundred miles go by water  afore we get to Dawson.” His voice sounded weary, empty. After his constant chirping about gold, it felt strange for Elizabet to hear Aaron talk like one of the quitters when they were so close. She had seen many men drop out of the stampede. When they first docked at the muddy wharf in Skagway, some gave up right away, waiting for the next boat to take them home. Others quit miles up the trail, sometimes because it was just too hard for their bones to take or because they saw too many boots sticking out from under blankets on the side of the trail. The ground was too frozen for a burial. They’d have to wait until spring.

Aaron went on and told her his plans. “I’m gonna leave the supplies here. I’ll go back down for another load. If you want to go on, Elizabet, I’ll catch up to you at Scales up there before the Golden Stairs. You buy yourself something to eat. If I’m delayed, use some of your money to buy some space in a tent.”

Elizabet nodded. Aaron had said: “If you want to go on.” He used the word “if.” It was the first time she had heard Aaron talk like this, like there wasn’t a big pot of gold in his future, like they weren’t going to be Klondike millionaires. And it was all Elizabet could do to sort out the quitters from the steady stream of men who kept going up the trail step by step, without complaint, a quiet confidence—a purpose—a belief that the quest, being part of the stampede, will be worth it. And now Aaron was talking about their trek as if it had somehow become less important since they boarded the train west, took the steamer out of Seattle.

“Alright Aaron, I’ll wait for you at Scales. Do hurry. I’ve heard the men talk, the longer we’re on this mountain, the more claims will be staked. There’s a lot of gold up there—that’s what they’re saying—but nothing lasts forever. So do hurry back.”

Aaron pulled his long coat around him and reached out to give Elizabet a light hug. He muttered a grim, “I’ll try.”

Elizabet stood for a long time watching Aaron descend the hill. The group of men going down was more haphazard than the line going up. Some of them could slide part way down on icy chutes, and others, freed from heavy bags or packs, bounded downhill through the wet snow like exuberant children. Aaron was easy to watch in the crowd with his long elegant coat, his hatless balding head. He looked at the chute—watched the men who jumped on to slide—but backed away and carefully picked his way down the rocky slope. She stood watching him until the tiny man disappeared in the sea of people, just moving specks in the distance. When he was gone, she felt very cold. The wind had been whipping down the slope and for the first time, she felt it chilling her bones. The damp hem of her skirt was now heavy with ice. She looked at the men eating in the makeshift restaurant, just a shack with a stove, and she remembered sitting out on the veranda on a bright sunny morning, a servant setting down a carafe of orange juice, a plate of shirred eggs. Aaron had been so excited about the prospects of gold, of joining the great stampede. And as he faded from view, disappeared down the slope, her life before—those mornings on the veranda—seemed so very far away.

There was supposed to be a pretty good camp at Scales, where the stampeders, those who did not employ packers, had to weigh their provisions to satisfy the Canadian government. Scales had become a little settlement, complete with a saloon, a hotel, a general store, and tent space could be rented by men or women who wanted to lie down for a bit before embarking on the steepest part of the climb, the ascent to Chilkoot pass. There were even a few cabins behind the settlement.
     
Elizabet waited at Scales. She talked to a few eager young men who had not yet lost their vitality for the challenge. They exchanged stories about the gold fields in Dawson, talked of stories they had read in the newspapers or picked up along the trail. The banter went back and forth between rumors that the claims were going fast and the more expansive tales that said the creek beds and hilltops that had so much gold the men couldn’t hope to gather it all up. She also talked to a couple actresses who had come north from San Francisco.

Elizabet was excited to talk to entertainers, women who had been on stage. “What shows have you done?” she asked them,

A tall well-padded woman introduced herself as Charlotte Starcevic, but she said, “Everybody knows me as Lottie Star.” She was wearing trousers, was thick-waisted with big curves, and she had painted lips. Elizabet thought her glistening red lips were a strange sight on the mountain, but she had never met a real actress before. “Shows?” Lottie said, “Yeah, we do some shows down there. Real popular we are. You ask around the wharf, in San Francisco, and people will tell ya. But ya know, honey, the pickings are getting’ kind o’ slim, so Mabel and I packed up and we’ve come up here to do some prospectin’.”

“So you’re doing shows in Dawson? How exciting,” Elizabet said.

“Yeah, we’ll be doing some shows. You could too, pretty thing like yourself. Look us up when you get there and maybe we’ll team up.”

“Really?” Elizabet said, “I will indeed.”

Lottie snorted, “Indeed?” she repeated quizzically. “You could tag along with us if you wanted to. Me and Mabel could keep an eye out for you, I mean you being all alone and everything.”

“I’m not alone. I’m waiting for Aaron to come back. He’s the man I came with. Aaron went back down the slope to get more supplies.”

“So you already got someone to watch out for you, a man even. Funny he went way down there and left you here all by yourself.”

Elizabet looked back down the mountain. “Yeah, funny.”

“Well you look us up if you get up there, will ya, honey?”

Lottie used the word ‘if’ just like Aaron had. Elizabet held her tears until the women had left, heading off to the Golden Stairs.

Elizabet waited two more days for Aaron to show up. On the third day, she was having some sourdough pancakes for breakfast and a man approached her. “My name is Ezekial Kent, Ma’am, I’m not sure how to ask you proper, but are you Elizabet Lauderman?”

“Yes. Yes I am she. Who might you be?”

“Who might—“ the man repeated, “I’m Ezekial. I’ve been sent by Aaron. Do you know the man?”

“I do. What news do you have?”

Ezekial took off his gloves and reached down in his pocket. He produced a folded piece of paper and handed it to Elizabet.

She read the note: “My dear Elizabet. It is with a heavy heart that I have come to the conclusion that I am not cut from the same fabric as the other men who have undertaken this expedition, or in short, I have concluded that it is not of my constitution to claw my way to the end of the earth in order to discover and possess a precious metal. I have thus decided to break off the venture. I intend to retreat by steamship to Seattle post haste, where I will await your return for a week. I’m sure you’ll remember the Watson House. Ask after my whereabouts there. If I do not see nor hear from you by Sabbath next, I will make my way by train back to Cambridge.”

Elizabet stood like a frozen statue in the snow, holding the letter for a long time. She finally looked up at the man, Ezekial, and then back at the letter, and then down the hill, and again up at the man and finally back at the page she held in her hands. “Thank you,” she said softly, “there was nothing more? Just this?”

“I’m sorry, Miss. He was a man out of sorts. He caught me just as he was getting ready to board a ship and I was debarking the other way for a run at the mountain. Looks like you’ve got a decision to make.”

“So you know the contents of this missive.”

Ezekial said without emotion, “It’s a long climb. And forgive me for sayin’ so, but if I’m gonna be the messenger, I want to know what I’m messaging. Don’t want to be part of anything wrong or immoral. This isn’t one of those things, is it?”

Elizabet looked down. She felt faint while she considered his words. “No. I can assure you this is not whatever it is you are imagining. I see a lot of people heading back down the hill. I know they’re not all going for supplies. People give up. Aaron did.”

“And you?” Ezekial said.“What of you? You’d better get yourself back down the hill, rejoin your escort and have a pleasant ride on the train back East. Boston was it? That’s right, Cambridge. Girls like you don’t do well out here alone. You’re gonna have to do something.”

“I’ve always done for myself,” Elizabet said, regaining some strength. “Just today I met some women from San Francisco. They’re going to Dawson to be actresses. They said I could join them.” She brightened, “I could do that.”

The man laughed. “You mean Lottie Star and her sidekick, Mabel, what the boys call Maybe. Yeah I saw them traipsing up here. They ain’t no actresses. Yeah, you could do that, Miss, you surely could.”

“Then what’re they doing up here if they aren’t…why did they come?”

Ezekiel held out his arms and pulled Elizabet into him, “Listen girl and listen well. They come for the gold like everybody else. People’ll tell you all kinds of things, but it’s all about the gold.”

Elizabet didn’t want to hear someone tell her she had come to this muddy cold hill for the same singular purpose that everyone else did, the gold. That wasn’t it at all. Or was it? She looked at Ezekiel, tried to take all of him in and she realized he was different than the others. He was a strong man, not particularly tall but strong. He didn’t look like his trek up the hill had taken a toll on him like it did on the others in the line. His face was resolute and serious but not marred by the taut lines of misery that she had seen on so many of the others, the look of unbearable endurance. And even his clothing was different. Most of the men looked like they had bought their outfits and most of their equipment at the Klondike Outfitters that had recently set up shop in Seattle. They wore ill-fitting boots that slipped on the hill, coats that were obviously not keeping them warm. But this man, this Ezekiel Kent, looked as comfortable standing on the hill as Elizabet imagined he’d be sitting on a train or even back at one of the socials at the house on the river, in Cambridge.

“Maybe you are beginning to see the seriousness of your situation, young lady. You’d better skedaddle down the mountain, get to your man afore something really bad happens to ya, something you’ll regret. I gotta tell ya Missy, people’ve come from all over to climb up and over this mountain to ride boats up to Dawson, all ‘cause they think they’ll get so much gold they won’t be able to carry it all back. And all them people think nothing bad’ll happen to them, nothing could go wrong.” Ezekiel looked at her to make sure she was listening, staring down at her blinking gray eyes.

Ezekiel tipped his hat and took a step back, his boots crunching in the snow. He said, “So I’ll say adieu. Give my best to Aaron and you two have a nice trip back. You think of old Zeke when you’re on that nice warm train—that’s what people call me, except up here the men like to call me Zephyr because I’m kind of like the wind, I guess. Once I get going, I’m kind of hard to stop. At least that’s what they say.” He chuckled. “Not always a good thing I guess, but it’s better than some of the names people get stuck with. I once knew a guy everyone called ‘Bad Luck Larry,’” he laughed again. “Well I’d better get going.”

Zeke left her there, looking at the men going up the hill, the stragglers freezing. She could see the man with the canoe still inching up ahead. He must’ve stopped for awhile and then resumed his climb. She wondered how he would get that thing up the Golden Stairs. It was getting too late to start back down. It was early fall and there was still a long day before a murky twilight that brought a cold chill. She rented some tent space and lay down on a blanket to rest. But inside of her, in her heart, Elizabet knew she was bound to see Dawson, and that she would never see Aaron again. She slept fitfully. It was in the late morning when she was having a hot bowl of rolled oats, sitting with the other men by an outdoor stove, when she could feel someone sitting heavily down next to her. It was Zeke.

“Still here?” he said, “still on the mountain. I’d ask you about Aaron, the guy who’s waiting for you but I can tell, if not by your late breakfast than by your eyes, that you lied to me yesterday—or at least didn’t tell me what you were intent on doing. You were never going to go after Aaron, were you?”

Elizabet nodded, putting another spoonful of oats in her mouth and savoring the warmth.

“Not only did you lie to me about Aaron but you stood there and listened to me go on and on—just letting ol’ Zeke tell you all kinds of things—about how hard it is up here and how bad things can really happen to you, and you listened to the whole blasted story while all the time waiting for me to leave so you could do what you please. Did I get it about right?”

“I was only being polite,” Elizabet protested.

“Where you’re from, do polite people lie? Abandoning your men, that too? The one who’s waiting for you? Ignoring advice from people, people who are trying to help you, trying to keep a look out for ya—is that what you do in polite society?”

Elizabet had stopped eating and she hung her head sullenly. A raucous group of men had just sat at the bench next to her and Zeke. They were yelling for breakfast, grub steaks, eggs. They were well equipped with the latest gear from the outfitters in Seattle. The men shoveled food in their mouths and talked about gold, the houses they’d buy on Beacon Hill, the lavish dresses they’d buy for their wives after they could afford to meet women and marry them. Elizabet tried to melt into the noise of the men, wrap herself in their enthusiasm because she didn’t want to be just another one of the bad things he spoke of—the dashed dreams of the Gold Rush—and she didn’t want Zephyr Zeek to see her cry.

She was still listening to the noise of the men who were already dividing up the gold they were going to find before they even made a claim, so she didn’t hear Ezekiel when he said, “I can help you.”

Ezekial put his hand on her shoulder, studying the woman again. Elizabet was trembling. He could feel that. It wasn’t the first time he saw a greenhorn trembling on the mountain from the kind of bone-chilling cold that most men, newly arrived from the States, had never felt before, and he knew that underneath the chill, those men shook out of fear. But this was a woman. a strange creature on the mountain. And Elizabet was not a woman like that gold-digger Lottie Star, but she was a woman with a good heart and earnest dreams. Zeke understood this. He knew it was a rough country for a sensitive lass but he believed in dreams, having had a few.

Putting his hand on her other shoulder so he had a grip on both sides of Elizabet’s head, Zeke looked into her eyes and said slowly, loudly, “Listen. I might be crazy—some folks say I am—but I can help you. I’ll watch over you to Dawson.”

Elizabet heard him now and nodded, letting go of a little smile. “You will?” she asked as if waking from a dream.

“Yes I will,” he said, “but you must do exactly as I say. I have not the time nor the patience for disobedience when it comes to our joint venture. It has to be that way.”

Elizabet had never heard anyone speak to her this way. It would certainly never have been a tone that Aaron or any of the boys back in Cambridge would use and it was somehow thrilling to her. She felt that she should argue the point, to protest that she’s not a child and knows how to behave. In school, the headmasters had taught her that it was fashionable to be feisty, to stand up for herself, and her family encouraged this demeanor. But it was all parlor games, just lunging and parrying with words. She had never been all alone on the side of a mountain before. She had never been one of a scant few women in a sea of men who had only one thing on their mind, and being chivalrous to the fairer sex was only a secondary pursuit. And besides, she thought, back home, agreeing with people was thought to be better than making waves.

“I’ll try to obey you,” she said, closing her eyes, considering her response. Was it enough? “I’ll try to honor your kindness,” she continued in the sweetest voice she could muster.

“You will,” he said without emotion, looking into her eyes, taking her hand.

“I will,” she repeated. “But what if I don’t. I mean what if I can’t.” She didn’t want to say these words with Zeke looking into her eyes, his hand with a firm grip on hers, but she couldn’t help herself but to challenge the man, to question his authority. Her coquettish verbal parry used to lead to nothing more than a lively discussion but what consequence would her words have out here? She wanted to be guided only by the tone of his voice and by his resolute firmness, but she had to know if his resolve was real or if it was just a remote version of the same old Cambridge games.

“I have a cabin here, right over behind the scales. My place was here before they called this Scales, before thousands of men showed up, before the government paid attention to what people wanted to bring over the mountain or who was going.”

“You’re not part of the stampede?” Elizabet said.

He let out a snort. “I s’pose I am now. But no, I was a gold rusher before the papers knew there were gold fields at Dawson. Did you hear about that steamship, the Excelsior? Well some of that gold was mine.”

Elizabet gasped. Zeke was obviously strong, obviously used to the mountain, but he didn’t look like much, she thought, at least not exactly like the rough men she had seen in her dreams. She looked at the men slogging up the slope and then back at Zeke. She never would have guessed that he was that much different than the others.

Zeke was pulling on her hand now, making her walk. They wound down a trail away from the stampede, behind the scales, and went across a footbridge that spanned a small gorge. And there was a cabin. He still held her arm firmly when he unlatched the door and sat her on a chair in what she was astonished to find was a surprisingly roomy home. From her chair, she watched him build a fire in the hearth and she felt a warm glow envelop her body. She hadn’t thought of it until that moment, but it was the first time in days that she felt warm.

After she watched Zeke for a long time, mesmerized by his work, the fire, she said, “This place, it’s yours?” He didn’t look up.

When he was done with the fire, and when he had stripped off his heavy jacket and his gloves, he said, “Now stand up, Missy so we can have a talk.”

She obeyed. Her skirt was thawing out, the ice melting on the floor. While her face and body was warmed by the fire, her legs were cold and shivering. She wondered if she would be able to dry off, if Zeke would allow her to fetch something else out of her bag to wear.

Zeke said, “Come’ere,” and Elzabet moved toward him, leaving a trail of dripping water behind her. “Yeah, this is my place,” he said, “but you have to learn that I’ll tell you what you need to know so we don’t go filling your pretty head up with things you don’t need so much. What I really need is for you to have your wits about you.”

“I’m sorry,” she said, “it’s just that—“

Zeke held his hand up and her mouth snapped shut. “Just listen. Can you do that?” She nodded. “I got this place, another one over the mountain and a place in Dawson. Guess that makes me some kind of tycoon out here,” he laughed, “owner of three shacks,”

He pulled Elizabet into him. “Your sopping wet, girl. If we cinched it with a belt, I got some trousers that’d work for you when we go up the pass. That’s the easy part. But first, I need to tell you how we’ll do things on this expedition. You lied to me yesterday when you left me, let me think that you we’re going after your fellow and you didn’t. And second,” he pulled Elizabet toward him, letting her sit on his lap, “you abandoned your man right here on the side of a mountain. He’s probably still waiting for you. Now I only know that boy from when he gave me the note, asked if I’d look for you, so I can’t tell you I’m all taken up with his problems, but you leaving him like you did bothers me.”

“I didn’t know what—“ she blurted out, but Zeke squeezed her hand and she stopped.

“I’m not done talking and you’re not done listening,” he said. “You left one man, what’s to say you won’t do it again? And here’s what you should know, Missy—“

“Elizabet. My name is Elizabet.”

“Ok…right…that’s right…Elizabet, you should know that it ain’t just me I’m worrying about. It’s hard enough for men to survive in this place by themselves, but it’s almost impossible for women. This place ruins the single girl. Dawson’s full of stories of women who went to drink or killed themselves. And for me, I gotta depend on you not doing to me what you did to Aaron. Like what assurance do I have?”

“Can I promise?” she said sweetly.

“You can but we’re in the wild and there’s gold up there: two things that can destroy people. If you stick with me, want to join my expedition, I need you to have a real interest in our venture, and I gotta have a stake in you just as I’d stake any claim.”

“What do you mean?” she said, the sweetness falling out of her voice.

“I mean we can solve some of our problems right now. Let’s start with your wet clothes.” Zeke pulled her up from his lap and then repositioned her by pushing her back down over him, face down. He pulled on her sopping skirt until it was completely removed and he tossed it over to a chair that was closer to the fire. She wore only a woolen slip under the skirt that was also very wet. He reached for a towel and slid it under the slip, carefully drying her legs, going all the way up and over her thighs, to her back.

Elizabet squirmed a little, first from the indignity of being stripped by this man in a remote cabin on the trail to Chilkoot pass, and then because it felt good to be dry and to be tended to. When her legs were mostly dry, Zeke carefully pulled the slip off and then dried her again. She was naked from the waste down. Not even Aaron had seen her bare legs. Nobody back home had.

Zeke patted her ass. Her legs were feeling warm now, matching the warmth the rest of her body had felt earlier. “We took care of that,” he said, “now we just have to take care of your obedience problem, get us off on the right foot.”

Elizabet, languid in the warmth of the cabin, was going to ask what he meant by that, what he was going to do, but before a single word could come out, Zeke brought his hand down hard on her behind. She yelped and immediately tried to use one of her hands to rub where she had been struck. Zeke intercepted her hand.

“If you mean what you said about obeying me—or trying to obey, as you said—then you’ll take your punishment for what you have already done so we can get on with things, get up the hill.”
He was using that voice again, a low steady growl. It wasn’t an angry voice but a firm one. Elizabet wanted to protest but that voice was pulling her into it and she so much wanted what this man said he would do for her. She had a quick flash of her home in Cambridge, of wanting her father’s help and guidance, but as soon as she raised the slightest protest, her parents would laugh and give into her. It’s when she began to read the fantastic stories of adventurers out west, about strong men and people who would follow them because they were men who could not be distracted by the cute antics of a girl like her. She relaxed and put her head down, swung her arm forward, away from her bottom. “Yes,” she said, “I’m ready.”

Zeke kept one hand in the small of her back and used the other to give her a cadence of swats. They hurt, making her squirm and groan. But she did not protest. Her cheeks went from a pasty pale color left over from the Yukon chill to a soft pink—when she began to cry—and then to a scarlet red, when she didn’t think she could take much more. But she kept thinking of that voice and of the man who said he would take her to Dawson.  And then she was sobbing. Time froze. She didn’t know how long the tears had been flowing before Zeke stopped and rubbed her sore behind lightly. And then he reached for a wooden bath brush that was propped against a chair. Elizabet was silent, just sniffling now.

“I think you’re getting the message,” Zeke said. “Let me just give you a few with this,” he laid the back of the brush over her ass, “so maybe you’ll remember what you’ve learned.” He brought the brush down on her backside, lightly at first, but each of the next five strokes came a little harder than the one before. By the time the last one came down, she was in a soft warm place and she knew that she would make it to Dawson come what may.


 


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