Back in the days when I was a bush pilot in Alaska, I used to fly tourists out of Fairbanks across the Alaska Range and into places like Delta Junction and Anaktuvuk. There’s some pretty spectacular scenery up there, but not a lot to do. One of the big attractions in Nenana, for example, is putting a big tripod out in the river and placing bets on when it will fall over. Whoo-boy.
Well, one time I was playing tour guide/taxi driver for a couple of guys headed north. I remember thinking that they weren’t my typical passengers. They didn’t have their faces pressed up against the windows the whole trip, didn’t keep asking the same old questions: “Don’t you get tired of the cold? Is that a polar bear? Is it always this white? Are we going to see real Eskimos? Just how big is Alaska? Are you sure we won’t run out of gas?” In fact, they didn’t talk to me at all. They just sat there, occasionally whispering to each other.
We landed in Nome on a particularly good example of the kind of day I hate. It was grey and windy and cold. The juice in the thermometer struggled to get up to 5-below zero. As I pulled the plane up on the tarmac and got ready to power things down, one of these statues I was carrying decided to speak.
“Do you want to make some extra cash,” he said.
“Hell yeah,” I said. “Who do I have to kill?”
He didn’t laugh. Instead, he reached into his coat and hauled out a map.
“You know about this place, right? Gold rush in 1899,” he said.
I nodded. Who didn’t know about that? Half my business was ferrying tourists who thought they could find some overlooked nuggets in the Klondike.
He went on to tell me how they knew of a tribe of Inupiat that had taken a large cache of gold back around the turn of the century. They got a whole truckload of it–millions of dollars worth–and carried it way up north, somewhere near Barrow. Apparently, these two guys had found some sort of treasure map. I remember thinking, “I gotta dump these lunatics off and get me a beer someplace.”
When they told me they’d pay me $75,000 to help them get supplies and point them in the right direction, I changed my mind. We decided to go to one of my favorite watering holes, the Red Dog Saloon, to hammer out the details.
Walking into the Red Dog is like taking a trip back in time. It’s an old-fashioned kind of place. I don’t think they changed the decor since it was built in the 1880’s. There was a big, oak wood bar all along the back (with one of thosee suitable-for-smashing-in-a-bar-fight mirrors behind it). The walls were all covered with caribou and moose antlers and heads. They even had a grizzly bear rug! But one of its best features was a certain fiery redhead that I was dying to see again. Lilly was a waitress there, and she was something else. I was hot for her, but after the incident with her ex-boyfriend, Big Ed, and his hunting knife, I tried to keep my distance.
It was early, and there were only a couple of people around, so my new partners and I sat down at a table near the bar. Lil was clearing tables, slapping away grabby hands and making jokes with the regulars. I waved to her. She ignored me.
I don’t remember how the fight got started. All I know is that one minute I was talking about cold-weather gear and snowmobiles, and the next I was picking splinters out of my ass and looking up from the floor. A couple of big, hairy guys were throwing punches at each other above me. I tried to crawl out of their way, but instead I got tangled up in their feet. One of them came crashing down to my level.
I was lying there, staring into the stunned eyes of the second biggest man I’d ever seen, wondering when he was going to come around and throttle me (and trying not to gag at the rotten fish smell of his breath), when I heard a loud crack above me. I rolled out of the way just before the second one fell on top of me. Lil had smashed a chair over the guy’s head.
As I struggled to my feet, I saw something like a small, bloody rock on the floor. I picked it up. Turns out it was a tooth–a gold tooth. I figured it must have fallen out of the head of one of those big apes, but when I got up I saw Lil standing there with her palm outstretched. It was hers!
Well, the two treasure hunters apparently got scared and ran off during the fight. I never saw them again. But Lil and I eventually came to terms. I married her later that year, and we headed south to Florida. She’s the only Eskimo gold I ever found.
[ You have D to thank for this. ]