We’re delighted to publish the winner of the 2018 HWA Dorothy Dunnett Short Story Prize. Nineteen Above Discovery by Jennifer Falkner is a beautifully-crafted, brooding story set in the bleakness of the Klondike in the depths of winter.
August 31, 1896.
Here, to avoid being poor, we live worse than tramps, turning the earth inside out.
Last night I dreamed we were back at Dyea, still fresh and ignorant. We were dragging our outfit from the shallows where the boatmen had dumped it, racing the tide to get it to shore, then pitching our tent in a grove of cottonwoods, away from the dozen or so shacks that made up the town. Spring was late and the scene was nothing but shades of brown and gray. Except, in my dream, marking the trail into the woods, the trail that led up to that nock in the saw tooth mountains called the Chilkoot Pass, a forsythia stood in bloom. Its boughs glowed like gold.
Jack went back to the town site two days ago. He took the sled to return with more lumber and grub. We’ve been on the claim now for more than a month and the cabin’s almost finished. We use three wooden crates for chairs and a table. In pride of place on the small shelf where we keep the tin plates and mugs, I placed my gold nugget. It was a gift from one cheery old prospector we passed on our way up Rabbit Creek. His claim was Eight Above Discovery and it looked like he’d been working it for ages. Several pits were dug into the muddy banks and the sluice boxes seemed to be wicking gold straight out of the ground.
“Too many cheechakos up here, thinking bending over a creek with a pan’s enough,” he said. “The cold may kill you, but the work won’t.” And he proffered a lumpen nugget as big as a robin’s egg. I took it as a good omen. A talisman.
“You wouldn’t recognize the place, Alma,” he said. The town site, which was little more than a mudflat covered in alder and stunted willows six weeks ago, has been cleared. “It’s like a circus come to the Klondike. You can barely see the ground for the grubby tents and shacks that have sprung up all over the place.”
“Did you get any more bacon?”
“I got some lumber, that’s it. And some tinned salmon. There are so many men and so few supplies. Already everything is too dear. We’ll get by,” he added, “as long as we’re careful.”
October 28, 1896.
It snows every day, but lightly; there is little to clear. The pines on the hills look sparser now, something like the hairs upraised on a man’s arm. My days are mostly spent chopping down pines. Jack scouts the claim, looking for the likeliest spot to start in earnest. In the long twilights the hills around are dotted with bonfires, prospectors who’ve already started digging.
The Yukon is frozen over; there’ll be no news or supplies from the outside until spring.
I keep thinking about that old sourdough back in Forty Mile. His face barely visible beneath his grizzled whiskers. “You’re fools if you listen to Carmack,” he said. “There’s no gold. I know those parts and I tell you, the water in them creeks just don’t taste right. You won’t see any colour there.”
December 1, 1896.
Still no colour. Jack starts a bonfire every night and each morning, after we scrape away the ashes, he digs through the permafrost. He manages about a foot and a half per day. I’ve been melting snow to pan through the muck he dredges up and so far all I’ve found is an enormous quantity of black mud. This is our existence: pick and shovel, water and pan. Day after day. Jack’s been muttering about sinking another hole closer to the creek bed.
We get less than four hours of daylight now. In the long dusk the land seems to turn on us, telling us we’ll never be able to do all we have to do.
December 5, 1896.
There is an argument brewing in our cabin. It’s been lurking for weeks, but now inflates like a balloon, crowding out everything else. My nugget is missing. Jack blames me. He calls it a sign of my lazy housekeeping. He accuses me of spending too much time writing stories. He forgets that my little potboilers kept us going when Pa was ill.
I take long walks when the moon is full enough. The snow underfoot is pulverized sugar. I hike up to the highest hill, Solomon’s Dome, from which the ridges and valleys of the Klondike stem like spokes from the hub of a wheel. Silent fires dot the hills and blur the air with smoke. In many places the fires are hidden, the shafts sunk so deep that they look like pits leading to hell. No light, only heat and smoke pour out. There are ten claims to a mile here, they say, but only occasionally will I see another figure bundled in furs against the wind.
Jack never fails to ask on my return in what direction I walked, how many windlasses I counted, how many claims, how big the dumps are. He can’t stop thinking that everyone else is hitting pay dirt while we’ll be lucky to break even. But for now I’m not speaking to him.
December 10, 1896.
Snowing again. The sun doesn’t show its face anymore, it merely gilds the hilltops around midday. The cabin is quiet. Jack and I barely speak. It’s worse than when we were children. We sit in the gloom of our candles, breathing the sweet herb smell of Jack’s evening pipe, keeping company with our own thoughts.
December 12, 1896.
Tonight, as if he was grabbing a mouse by the tail, Jack yanked Pa’s watch right out of my pocket. It was made from the silver Pa dug out of the mountain in Colorado, punched with fancy scrollwork and a Latin motto, and it hasn’t worked since Alaska.
“What the hell, Jack?”
“I’m just taking what’s mine. Since I’m the eldest. And the only surviving son. It belongs to me.”
“And I get nothing? I looked after him. You got all his shares in the mine.”
I tried to snatch it back. Soon we were rolling on the ground, spitting and screeching, no better than drunken brawlers on Saturday night. We only stopped because our tussling knocked over the candle on the table.
Now Jack has a shiner on his cheek and my ribs crackle when I breathe deep. But here’s something: afterwards, when we were spent, lying in the dark on the hard dirt floor, I felt properly warm again.
“I didn’t get his shares,” said Jack. “I got his debts. There’s nothing left.”
Jack’s probably right: Pa would have wanted him to have that watch. But it’s the only lovely thing I own.
December 25, 1896.
Christmas Day. Cold enough to harden quicksilver.
Yesterday we witnessed a specimen rare in these parts: a visitor. A chuckle-headed Swede in a red marten-skin cap, from two claims down. Nils Johansson. He came to invite us to dinner. And he lent me the snowshoes he was wearing for the journey. Unbuckled them then and there as we stood in the snow, waiting for Jack to climb out of the shaft. I’ve been living with my brother so long, I’d forgotten what gallantry was.
He had invited two more men, Artie Sloper and Hank Shaw from further down the creek, two sourdoughs who abandoned their claims near Forty Mile as soon as news of the strike came last August. Their faces were dark and haggard, their bodies rail-thin, and they spoke wildly of the fortunes they were digging out of the earth.
The Swede’s cabin was small and filled with the fug of unwashed bodies. But he had one amenity: a window facing south. No windowpane but a dozen or so glass bottles filled the frame. Lord, but I envy him that window.
There was moose instead of turkey and the only vegetables were hard little potatoes the size of Brussels sprouts, but there was conversation and that was better than meat and drink. We didn’t need the squeaky fiddles or the honky tonk pianos of town. Artie grabbed my hand and swung me round the room, singing Oh Susannah. I laughed so hard my sides ached. Then we sang Good King Wenceslas, The Bottom of the Punchbowl, and wound up with a rather tearful Auld Lang Syne. Prospectors are the most sentimental men you’ll ever meet.
Jack didn’t sing.
“What were you and Nils talking about?” I asked. “Thick as thieves you were all night.”
“He says Hank’s been seeing colour since before the freeze-up. He reckons they’ve got at least ten dollars a pan in their creek, maybe more.”
When we got back, I found I’d forgotten to dump the old tobacco can I use as a chamber pot before we left and its contents had frozen solid. I hurled it into the creek.
Terrible headache this morning.
January 6, 1897.
January and the logs of our cabin have shrunk and most of the chinking has blown away from the never-ending wind. We re-pitched the tent and moved the bed and stove inside, leaving the cabin to shelter the tools and grub. Before Jack shovelled snow against them, the canvas walls puffed like a fat child out of breath. But now the snow offers protection from the wind, except when one of us opens the flap and, like a Colorado goon, it pushes its way in with knives drawn.
January 8, 1897.
The butter moves in circles around the pan as it sizzles and melts. It mirrors my thoughts, which circle back to the same subjects, to spring, to the likelihood of a wasted year, to a life of poverty.
“Jack, perhaps we should consider selling the claim. We could use money to find a likelier spot. Or just go home. Start again.”
The bacon was frozen; I had to cut it into chunks outside with a hatchet. Now I dropped a large piece into the pan and jumped back from the spitting grease.
“It was a gamble and it didn’t pay off, that’s all,” I said, not turning round. “It happens every day. Pa used to say—”
“Just shut up about going home, will you? And shut up about Pa.” He took a couple of steps, but was frustrated in his attempt to pace by the small space and low roof.
“What’s wrong with you?”
He picked up the hatchet I had brought inside and swung it randomly. I worried what he’d hit, the scant furniture we owned being the least of it. Cabin fever is a real thing and dangerous. It wasn’t until he hurled it down so it became stuck in the ground that I breathed again.
He sat heavily on the bed and dropped his head into his hands. “I didn’t pay his debts. The bank thinks we defaulted. We can’t go back.”
“So where’s all the money? The money from the house?” I pried the hatchet from the floor and tucked it behind the table, out of sight.
“It paid for our outfit. We can’t go back unless we’ve got at least twelve hundred dollars in our pockets. Even then, we’d barely break even.”
The meat was starting to smoke and had blackened on one side. I turned it over with a fork, so at least the two sides would match.
He spoke shamefacedly. “I didn’t just want to pay Pa’s debts. I thought we could make a fortune here. I just want this winter to end. I want—”
“God, yes!” He sat up. “A bath. And proper grub. I want to eat till I burst.”
I closed my eyes. “Roast beef, tomatoes, sweet peas. Chocolate.”
“But no ices,” he added. I laughed. “Not even in our drinks. A soft feather bed. No more lumpy mattresses laid on spruce boughs.” He grew serious. “Comfort, Alma. That’s all. I want us to live in comfort. I’d do anything for that.”
I stroked the back of his hand. That us would be worth more than all the gold in the Klondike, if I could hold him to it.
January 14, 1897.
Pa’s watch is missing. It’s not in the tent and I can’t remember the last time I saw Jack with it. I asked but he didn’t seem bothered by its absence. I think he’s hidden it somewhere, along with my nugget, maybe to feel the claim holds some kind of wealth at least. It must be down there with him, but the steady ring of his shovel hitting frozen earth warns me to leave him alone.
Only half way through January and already we’re getting more daylight. Nearly six hours. But the cold doesn’t budge.
February 3, 1897.
When I returned from my walk yesterday, Jack was darning socks and humming an old romantic ballad I haven’t heard since we left Colorado. He stopped when he saw me, both humming and sewing. There were snowshoe tracks leading to our camp. I didn’t feel like asking and he didn’t offer an answer.
February 7, 1897.
Seventy below, if the thermometer is to be believed. This morning I could hear my breath crackle as it hit the cold air. But it was my turn to collect wood for the stove. Jack stubbornly lay in bed. The wool blanket rippled over his body, covered in hoar frost and looking like the hills and valleys outside.
It’s only five or six steps from the tent to the woodpile. I thought at first it was sleep trying to stick my eyes shut, but it got so that I couldn’t open my eyes at all. I held my hands out to feel for the stacked logs, knocking several of them down by accident. I screamed for Jack.
He came running. “What? What is it?”
“I can’t see!”
“For god’s sake, Alma, don’t cry! You’ll make it worse.” He took my arm and led me back inside like I was an old woman. There was fear in his voice under the annoyance.
He sat me down on a crate before the stove.
“What is it? What happened to me?”
Blindness was a disaster. Blindness meant being a burden, it meant the constant risk of abandonment, of giving up all hope of returning home.
“Ice crystals. On your eyelashes. You’ll be fine.” He grasped my head with both hands. “Hold still,” he whispered, leaning close. Two hot puffs of air, first one eye, then the other. A trickle of water like tears.
“Can I open them now?”
“I think so. Just do it slowly, okay?”
“Okay.” I tried to pretend that I wasn’t terrified.
And there he was, staring anxiously into my face. I hugged him. How brotherly, to be so untrustworthy and so utterly reliable.
“I thought I told you not to cry.”
“Can’t help it.”
“You better help it. I haven’t got a clean handkerchief.”
February 15, 1897.
The Swede dropped in, apparently to tell us he’d been snubbed by Hank and Artie. They’re working hard at their claim and they either clam up whenever someone asks them how it’s going or remark that the Yukon is filling up with gossips who’d do better to mind their own beeswax.
“That’s them sorted,” said Jack. “The only question is how rich they are. Will they buy a hotel or a mansion?”
“Or maybe the governor’s house?”
It was coming on to supper. “The coffee’s run out, I’m afraid,” I said. Nils looked at Jack, who shrugged. I felt compelled to add, “But there’s plenty of tea.”
The tent was warm and Nils removed his fur coat before perching on a crate. An inch of silver chain dangled from his trouser pocket.
I stood up, looked around foolishly, trying to speak, and sat down again.
“You alright, Alma?” said Jack.
“Yes. Fine. Perfectly fine, thank you.” He gave me a funny look.
“Of course, for all we know, we could all be richer than those two,” Nils took his mug from Jack. “They can’t know much more than we do until spring cleanup.”
It was a love token, that watch. It had to be. Jack had given it to the Swede. Jack talked normally, the way I’ve heard him talk to a hundred men. He was being very careful. But Nils was easier to read. His smile shone like a glacier at sunrise and he couldn’t tear his eyes from Jack.
They talked about how soon the thaw would come, how they would go about constructing sluice boxes and harnessing water from the creek. Nils had never done it before, so Jack was in his element, describing how we did it in Colorado.
“The hardest part will be getting the lumber. It’ll be a race to Ladue’s mill come spring.”
I can see how it will be. They will leave together. They’ll cross that infernal Yukon River back to the real world. I will be the spinster sister, a hanger-on. Not a partner anymore.
I’m glad there is so much emptiness here. It will make being alone easier to bear.
February 19, 1897.
Snow squalls have made it almost impossible to go outside. I am reduced to reading the labels on our tins for diversion. Armour’s Extract of Beef has never been so eloquent.
February 28, 1897.
Nils appeared early yesterday morning, hobbling into camp, his snowshoes nowhere to be seen. The moisture from his lungs when he exhaled had settled on his whiskers, coating his moustache and beard in ice, like insects in amber.
He was shivering and could barely get the words out. “Ice broke. It looked solid, the creek bed, but the ice broke, was too thin.”
Jack took his arm and practically carried him to the stove.
“Alma, get me a bucket of snow. We’re going to have to rub it on his legs before we can warm him up.”
“I can’t feel my feet, Jack.”
“Stupid man. Why didn’t you build a fire?”
“Dropped the matches.”
When I returned, Nils was calmer. Jack had fed him some whiskey and cut the frozen moccasins from his feet. They were a ghastly colour, paler than a corpse.
Nils was mumbling now. “If you think that’s best,” he said.
“I do, Nils. We’ll even do it now, so that when we get you to town, you don’t have to worry about anything except getting better and going home. Alma, get me some paper from that notebook of yours.”
He scribbled a handful of lines, then read them out. It was a deed of sale.
“Now you sign. One claim, Nineteen Above Discovery, for one nugget. That’s got to be five hundred dollars right there.” He pulled my nugget, the one that old prospector from Eight Above gave me before we staked our claim, from his coat pocket. He didn’t look at me.
“Good. Now Alma’ll sign too.”
“Jack, what’s going on?”
“Just doing Nils a favour. And it has to be in your name, we’re only allowed one claim each. Get him a pair of my socks, will you? He’s going to need them in a minute.” He took the bucket and started rubbing handfuls of snow onto the Swede’s feet.
Nils explained. “Jack’s going to sell my claim for me when he sells up in the spring. Then we’ll split the cash in Seattle.”
They left early this morning. Jack settled him in the sled, tucked the blankets from his bed all round, and pulled him down to Sloper’s claim. Sloper has dogs and can take him the rest of the way into town.
He hasn’t come back yet.
March 1, 1897.
Snowflakes drift down interminably. The empty tent was driving me mad so I was out chopping firewood when Jack trudged back. Nils is gone. I followed Jack inside, where he dumped his blankets on the bed and sat by the stove.
“We’re going to Seattle?”
Jack lit his pipe. “Of course not.”
“I thought you and he—”
“Guess he realized how hard it would be working that claim alone with frostbit feet.” His jaw was set.
“Jack, what happened?”
“Nothing happened! I bought us another claim, one right next to Shaw. It’s got colour in it for sure and all you can do is nag. I did what you wanted me to. We’re going to be rich.” He stormed off down to the creek.
March 15, 1897.
The days are longer but the cold remains intractable. Some days feel like an elaborate game of make-believe. It seems impossible there is a fortune under all that muck. Or that the two of us could even extract it, if there is.
The bags and wooden crates of food supplies have dwindled and emptied. We have dried beans and flour. Nothing else, until the thaw.
There can be no looking back now, no remorse. Or we’ll stay here forever.
Nineteen Above Discovery is also published in the December issue of Whispering Gallery, the magazine of the Dorothy Dunnett Society.
Jennifer Falkner is an award-winning short story writer from Ottawa, Canada. Her work has appeared in numerous publications, in Canada and internationally, most recently in Stonecoast Review, Firewords Quarterly, Former Cactus and The Jellyfish Review.
Jen’s short story Experiential Does It was also shortlisted for the HWA Dorothy Dunnett Short Story Prize, taking second place.
Pine forest in snow: Freeimages
Woman in tanned sheepskin parka (and) woman lying down inside cabin: The Scarlet Life of Dawson by La Belle Brooks-Vincent via Flickr
Two men among tents and huts: The gold fields of the Klondike; fortune seekers’ guide to the Yukon region of Alaska and British America by John W Leonard
Two men hauling logs: Asahel Curtis via Wikimedia