Dusty had spent a restless night tossing, turning, and getting very little sleep. He knew he had little time to get his personal affairs in order, not to mention getting prepared for the winter that always came too soon.
When he heard the Captain moving around downstairs, he slipped quietly out of bed, trying not to wake up Aura Lee, and quickly got dressed and then headed down the stairs to meet the day.
“Mornin’ Johnny,” Dusty said with a smile, just as Shadow Spirit pushed in through the door.
“Well, well, you decided ta grace us with yer presence?” Dusty said, as relief flooded through his body. The magnificent animal, sensing Dusty’s emotions, came to him and licked his outstretched hand.
“If only ya could talk, I’d be a askin’ where ya wondered off ta all night. I bet the answer would be mighty interestin’.”
Shadow looked at her master with her intelligent eyes and seemed to understand every word he said. When Dusty had finished talking to her about her disappearing act, with as much sternness as he could muster, she barked once and lifted her head to him. Her tail was wagging in anticipation of the loving pats and the ear rubs she knew would be administered to her with gentleness and love.
After a quick breakfast of bacon, biscuits, and plenty of hot coffee to wash it down, Dusty wrote a brief note to Aura Lee, explaining he had things to do and would try to be back in time for the noon meal.
Without making much conversation, each in their own thoughts, the two friends walked the trail to town, and neither seemed to mind the quietness. Their friendship was such that it didn’t always need words, they both just enjoyed each other’s company along with enjoying the start of a brand new day.
Both men knew the days ahead would be filled with danger for Dusty, and the way he handled each obstacle could and would probably change the way of life for everyone concerned. Other than the circuit judge, Dusty was about to become the only legal authority in the territory.
When they reached the town, Captain O’Brien and Dusty headed over to V.O. Rollie’s Grub Tent. Another cup of coffee sounded good to them and besides, if one listened to the talk going around while enjoying a cup or two, you were sure to catch up on the latest happenings around town.
The Grub Tent was booming. It looked like everyone who’d arrived on the Utopia had shown up at V O’s to have breakfast. You could feel the excitement in the air.
As Dusty looked at the hopeful faces of these cheechakos, again he couldn’t help wonder how many would actually find the wealth they were seeking or even be able to survive their first brutal Alaska winter. They came from all occupations. Some of them were city dwellers who didn’t have a clue how to survive in any type of wilderness environment, much less that of Alaska. These would be the first to give up. Most, after a month of mosquitoes, grizzly bears, and hardships beyond their wildest imaginations would leave on the first boat they could book passage on heading south. Many that remained through the entire summer would leave on the last boat out before the inevitable winter ice sets in and chokes the waterways, making them impassable by boat. Some though would stay, they were the ones the new territory needed; a fearless lot who expected the worst and met it head-on. These, with few exceptions, would learn to coexist with the land and its people. Unfortunately, there was another type of newcomer; these were the ones that were now officially Dusty’s problem.
Standing just inside the door, Dusty and the Captain looked the busy Grub Tent over, searching for a vacant table. Spotting a couple of guys that looked to be brothers that were getting up from their table, Dusty and Johnny sauntered over and introduced themselves to the boys.
The two young men said their names were Elijah and Micah. They didn’t give a last name and keeping with the code of the West wasn’t asked for one. Elijah said they were brothers; which confirmed Dusty’s suspicions. They said they came from a little town called Ellensburg, in the new state of Washington. The two were strappin’ young men, standing over six feet tall and Dusty knew, after just a short conversation, these two were from good stock and were men of strength and integrity; the kind Alaska would need.
As the two brothers walked out the door Dusty said, “There are two fellers ta ride the river with, I’ll guarantee ya they don’t know the word quit.”
“Yah and I’ll tell you something else,” the jaunty sea Captain said with a twinkle in his eye. “With their good looks and that red hair, the young female population around here will be chasing them like an old grizzly after spawning salmon.”
They both had a good laugh and were still chuckling when three unsavory characters came through the door. The men caught Dusty’s attention immediately. All three of them were in need of a bath and just one look told you they weren’t prospectors. Dusty had seen, all too often, their kind before. Every mining camp, railhead, or frontier town drew this type just like bees to honey. Dusty knew these three spelled trouble with a capital “T.”
“How many of these hard cases ya reckon ya brought up?” Dusty asked Johnny, whose attention was now scanning V.O.’s grease spotted menu.
“What, what did you say?”
Dusty repeated the question, nodding in the direction of the three scruffy men. The Captain’s gaze followed the men as they sat down and then he replied,
“Well, as I said before, nine came on board in Seattle, but there could’ve been some already on board that got on in San Francisco. I was in town picking up needed grub and supplies for the voyage when we started taking on passengers. I could ask my first mate?”
“Don’t bother” and he quickly changed the subject.
“What are ya lookin’ at that menu fer?” He asked, with a slight grin starting to turn up the corners of his mouth. “We done had breakfast, ya can’t still be hungry?”
“Well, to tell you the truth, the smells in here are kind of making me hungry all over again. I don’t want ta hurt your feelings, but you’re a lucky man finding a woman like Aura Lee; pretty, smart and. . . a good cook. ‘Cause you see, to tell the truth. . . Those biscuits you made this morning?. . . Well, I fed mine to Shadow Spirit and I think she didn’t want ‘em either, if she’s as smart as I think she is she probably buried them somewhere out in the woods. The good side to your cooking is it could cause a man to lose a powerful lot of unwanted weight.”
Dusty tried his best to act hurt and was searching for something to come back with, when the sound of crashing dishes and a fight breaking out, disrupted the friendly bantering.
Before Johnny knew what was going on, Dusty, with surprising speed, was in the middle of the fisticuffs. Next, coming out of the kitchen wheeling a cast- iron skillet, was V.O. himself and he had a full head of steam. V.O. was a former lawman down in the Arizona Territory and was a little past his prime, but he still had something left when the need arose. He wasn’t sure what had started the fight, but broken dishes and food was all over the place and one of the old prospectors, a regular at the Grub Tent, was out cold on the floor and bleeding from a wicked cut on his forehead.
Dusty had the element of surprise when he charged into the fracas but was losing ground fast. Two of the three bullies had him by the arms, and the third was about to work him over. Johnny was on the move with a piece of cordwood in his hand he had grabbed up as he passed by the big potbelly stove. He and V.O. arrived simultaneously and the ring of a skillet bouncing off the head of the first guy sounded like someone ringing a bell, and the cordwood slamming into the midsection of the second man, taking the wind and the fight right out of him. . . and then there was one.
The third guy was the biggest of the three. He had a good sixty pounds on Dusty and stood a full head taller, but he was caught completely off guard when Dusty suddenly came free. All at once, the odds had changed, and he didn’t like it. Before he could react, a left caught him on the end of his chin and he felt his knees start to buckle. Staggering back, he shook his head to clear the cobwebs. Pete still shaking his head, took a closer look at Dusty and didn’t care much for what he saw. For a moment he thought he had an advantage, being much bigger and at least ten years younger, but then he looked into Dusty’s icy blue eyes and he realized quite the contrary, and just like the bully and coward he was, he reached down to his boot and pulled a knife. The room became deathly quiet.
“Well now,” Dusty said in a flat monotone voice edged with steel. “I guess everyone here can see that yellow streak runnin’ down yer back.”
About then a menacing voice came from the doorway. “If I were you, I’d drop the knife. . . that is unless you’d like going through the rest of your miserable life missing a few of your fingers.”
Standing in the doorway was the biggest Indian Pete had ever laid eyes on, and the rifle he was pointing directly at him even looked bigger than life.
“You could take a chance I might miss, but then I’d probably just blow a hole clean through you,” the Indian said in perfect English with no humor in his voice.
A sweat broke out on Pete’s forehead and he knew this Indian meant business. Slowly, so his movement wouldn’t be misconstrued, he slipped the knife back into his boot. Straightening up, he glared at Dusty and said, with hatred in his voice, “This ain’t over, there will be another time and that’s when I aim ta killing ya…! Nobody makes a fool out a Big Pete and gets away with it … nobody!”
“For right now. . . “Big” Pete, you and yer two friends’ clear outa here and I’d advise ya not ta be comin’ back. But befer you go, fork over twenty dollars, which oughta cover the damages and yer breakfast.”
Pete started to say something, but instead, he reached into his pocket, pulled out what looked to be a brand new twenty-dollar gold piece, and threw it on the floor. He then grabbed both his dazed cohorts by their collars, shoved them toward the door, careful to avoid the big Indian who stepped aside to let them pass.
Dusty turned to thank both of his friends for the much-needed help and then bent down and picked up the twenty-dollar gold piece. It was the first brand new one Dusty had ever seen, and he wondered how a saddle tramp, who probably hadn’t earned an honest dollar in his life, had come by such a coin. Dusty flipped it to V.O. and said, “I think there’s more here than meets the eye. Those three ain’t by any stretch of the imagination prospectors and bein’s they’re not, what do ya suppose they’re doin’ in Hope and how do ya think one of them could come by a brand new twenty-dollar gold piece?”
The question was meant more for himself than anyone else, and he really didn’t expect an answer …With a puzzled look, he said his goodbyes and left the Grub Tent.
He wanted to thank Walker before checking out his suspicions, but after stepping out on the boardwalk and looking in both directions, he realized, once again, the aloof Indian had disappeared before Dusty could thank him.
Deep in thought, with a lot on his mind, he headed for the general store to follow up on his suspicion.
“Howdy George,” Dusty said with a smile. “I bet your landslide business hasn’t let up one minute with all these new folks in town.”
“It’s been crazy around here,” George replied. “Some of these folks don’t have the foggiest idea of what they need or what it takes to make it up here. If they don’t die from exposure, a grizz will get them and I’m not ashamed to admit, it’s got me bamboozled some. A few of them are buying things that haven’t spit to do with gold prospectin’, like for instance, one mean-lookin’ fella bought up enough .45 shells to start a minor war, and he wasn’t the only one. Yesterday another ye hoo did the same thing, no grub, no prospecting tools and no cold-weather gear, just .45 shells.
Dusty waited until George was through relating a few other strange purchases and then he asked a very important question and if the answer was what he thought it would be, it meant trouble had surely come to Hope… BIG TROUBLE . . .
Washington was admitted to the Union on November 11, 1889, becoming our 42ndState.
To Be Continued…