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Bo at Ballard Creek
By Kirkpatrick Hill, LeUyen Pham
Henry Holt and Company Copyright © 2013 Kirkpatrick Hill
All rights reserved.
BO HAD TWO FATHERS and no mothers, and after she got the fathers, she got a brother too. But not in the usual way.
* * *
HER TWO FATHERS were Jack Jackson and Arvid Ivorsen. They'd come to Alaska with the 1897 Klondike gold rush when they were young, a long time before they got Bo. The girl Jack was going to marry had died, and Arvid had just buried his mother, so they didn't have any reason to stay where they were.
They were both extra big. Not just tall, not that beanpole tall, but that kind of massive tall, six four or six five, with huge, deep voices and powerful, big fists. And they were both blacksmiths, her two fathers. But those were the only ways they were the same.
Of course Bo figured out when she wasn't too old that her family was not like any other family in Ballard Creek. The Eskimo children had mamas and papas, and grandmas and grandpas, and aunts and uncles and cousins.
"Do I have a mama?" she asked one day.
"Well, everyone has a mama," said Jack. "But sometimes mamas don't stick around, you know. Just walk off. Lots of animals like that." He was quiet for a minute, trying to think of an animal that took off, didn't hang around. "Turtles," he said suddenly. "Where I come from, they got big turtles, lay their eggs in a hole, just walk away."
Bo considered that. "Did my mama walk away?"
"Sure did," said Jack, "and lucky for us, someone giving away babies. Just what me and Arvid needed."
Bo knew about giving away babies. Gracie had given her baby girl, Evalina, to Big Jim and Dishoo, because they didn't have any babies and Gracie had two and one was enough.
So that was enough of an answer for Bo when she was little.
* * *
JACK HAD A REAL NAME: Gideon. But when he came up north, he right away got the name Black Jack — because he was black, and a blacksmith besides, and his last name was Jackson. He liked that name fine because he didn't like the name Gideon. Arvid was called Swede by nearly everyone, or Big Swede, because he was.
Everyone had nicknames in those Klondike days. It was very popular. Jack used to tell Bo some of the crazy names and how people got them, to make her laugh. Like Tin Kettle George and Slobbery Tom and Pete the Pig and Calamity Bill. The dance-hall girls all had nicknames too, Jack said, like Gold-Tooth Gertie and Rompin' Rosie. Jack said nicknames were good for the girls' business.
Bo called Jack Papa and she called Arvid Papa. No one remembered how she'd decided on Papa, but it was right about the time she learned to talk. She was too little to understand that nobody would know who she was talking to if they were both called the same thing, so that's the way it stayed. Papa for both of them. And actually, somehow it didn't get mixed up at all.
Jack and Arvid knew each other first because of the shirts.
After he got to the Circle Mines, Arvid got himself a sewing machine. His mama had taught him to sew, and he was good at it. He figured he could make good money sewing shirts for the men in his off time from blacksmithing. And he did. The dance-hall girls even got him to sew this and that for them, though Arvid said they were much fussier than the men.
When Jack came to work at the Circle diggings, he heard about the shirt maker. Right away, he looked for Arvid to sew him shirts because Jack was a big, big man. His arms were as big around as some women's waists, and his neck was as big as some men's legs. So he couldn't just buy shirts from the trading post.
When he found Arvid sewing in a room in the back of the saloon, they both started to laugh because they didn't very often see a man as big as themselves. Arvid, in fact, found he could make Jack's shirts to the same measure as his own. Jack was happy that Arvid knew that big men needed some extra reinforcement at the seams, and that they needed a little extra room around the belly.
So that was how Arvid and Jack first met, and over the next twenty years, when they came across each other in this mining camp or that, they'd laugh about that first shirt, maybe play a game of cards, and sometimes they'd partner up on the blacksmithing when there was a big job that needed to be done fast.
When they got Bo, they were both working at the Rampart mine on the Yukon.
The gold rush was all over, and most of those thousands of early stampeders had quit the country when the big gold strikes played out.
Alaska was nearly empty again.
The stampeders left behind dozens of sad ghost towns — lonely stores with false fronts; abandoned old boats, paddle wheelers, rotting on sandbars; empty, echoing dance halls, their fancy oak floors and chandeliers thick with dust.
The ones who'd stayed, like the men at the Rampart mine, like Arvid and Jack, just stayed because the life pleased them, and because they loved the country.
So there they were at the Rampart mine together, Jack cooking after the regular cook took off, and everyone glad about it, because Jack was better than good at cooking.
And glad because the cookshack was always spotless when Jack ran it, with little things that made it home-like — maybe flowers on the table in the summer or a cloth on the long table.
That was because Jack had been raised in the kitchen of a big house down South, where Mama Nancy was in charge of the meals and housekeeping. She taught Jack to cook and keep things nice when he was a boy. The way Arvid had been taught sewing. Both very useful things for fathers, Bo always thought.
It'd been a bad year at Rampart. The gold was all played out, and Kovich, who owned the mine, was going to give it up after cleanup. He'd been a fair man to work for, and all the men were sorry he hadn't done well.
Rampart would be another ghost town.
All the miners at Rampart would be going out after cleanup. Some would take the boat upriver to Whitehorse so they could get the train and go down to the inland passageway to Seattle and home. They'd leave the country, and maybe they'd come back, and maybe they wouldn't.
Some of the men were headed to new diggings here and there. The mining on the Koyukuk was said to be looking good. Jack was going to the Koyukuk camp on the next steamboat going down the Yukon, and so was Arvid.
And that was why they got Bo. Because everyone in the camp knew they were headed downriver to Nulato. Everyone, including Mean Millie.
Jack just couldn't get over how amazing it all was. If one tiny thing had been different, it wouldn't have happened. If they hadn't had to go to Nulato to wait for a scow going up the Koyukuk, if Arvid hadn't been standing outside when Mean Millie was getting on the steamboat, they wouldn't have had Bo. Just the littlest thing could change a life, he said, like someone bending down to tie a shoelace or someone getting a splinter. Little things that make other things happen. He called it thinking backwards.
Bo liked to think backwards like that a lot. "If I hadn't spilled my cocoa at breakfast, and if I hadn't taken so long to find the mop to clean it up, I wouldn't have been in the cookshack when the moose came to the window, and I wouldn't have seen him." The trouble was knowing when to stop. You could go backwards forever, like if there was no cookshack or no mining camp or if she'd never been born.
It could get really silly after a while.CHAPTER 2
BO COMES TO BALLARD CREEK
EVENING WAS BO'S favorite time of day, when Jack and Arvid were resting, the day's work all done.
This evening Bo was sitting at the long table with Arvid and Jack, cutting pictures out of old Montgomery Ward catalogs. Hank Redman was there too.
Hank was the new marshal. He had come to the cookshack after supper to pass some time with Jack and Arvid. He probably hoped Jack would have cake left over from supper, too. He was staying at the roadhouse, and Milo, the roadhouse man, wasn't famous for his cake.
Bo had heard all the grown-ups talking about how they liked the new marshal. Mostly it was because he didn't pay any attention to the stills. People around Ballard Creek made whiskey with stills since it was against the law to buy it.
Only trouble with making your own whiskey was that it took lots of sugar, and sugar was expensive. Sometimes, if it had been a long time before the scow came with groceries, there wasn't any sugar to be had at Milo's store. Bo knew making whiskey was kind of bothersome, because the grown-ups at Ballard Creek had a lot to say about it.
Hank Redman didn't seem to know there were such things as stills, and sometimes he'd even have a glass of whiskey with one of the good-time girls. Since nothing against the law ever happened in Ballard Creek except making whiskey, Arvid said Hank had a damned easy job.
While they talked, Bo cut out the tables and chairs and things from the furniture part of the catalog. Then she carefully pasted the cut-out furniture on the inside of the shoe box Jack had given her. That would be the house for her catalog people. She would cut the people out last because they were the hardest and sometimes the scissors wouldn't behave, and her people ended up without hands or feet. Maybe Jack would cut them for her.
The paste jar had a little brush inside attached to the lid, which she thought was a very good idea. When no one was looking, she'd get some paste on her finger and lick it off. It had a very interesting taste. It tasted white.
New people like Hank didn't know everything about everybody the way the people of Ballard Creek and the mining camp did. New people were always curious about Bo, which used to make her feel cross.
"Just imagine," explained Jack. "Imagine someone seeing you for the first time with us two great big men, one red-faced Swede and one black. Got to stir up their curiosity. Would me!"
Hank was no different. He was curious, too. When they'd stopped talking about Woodrow Wilson and Gene Tunney, the boxer, Hank nodded his head at Bo. "Tell me how you come to have this little one," he said.
Bo looked up at Hank. "My mama walked away. Like a turtle."
Arvid laughed. "It's a long story."
"Good," said Hank.
"Well, I can tell you the short version, or the long one," said Arvid.
Bo said, "Tell it all the way through."
Jack laughed and pinched her cheek. "Bo likes to hear us tell this, because she's the star of the story."
"Long is good," said Hank.
Arvid went to the stove and picked up the coffeepot. "Anyone else?" Jack and Hank shook their heads, so Arvid poured the last of the coffee into his own cup. It was very thick and black. Arvid looked into the cup and said, "Maybe not," and put his cup down.
"Tell him," said Bo.
Arvid sat down at the table again.
"Well, we was at Rampart, me and Jack — 1924, that was. Kovich'd just gone bust. You ever meet Kovich?"
Hank shook his head.
"Anyway," Arvid said, "after Kovich went belly-up, I wired up to the boss here at Ballard Creek to see if he had work. He did, sent me back a wire. Wanted a blacksmith, bad.
"Asked if any of the other men wanted work. Needed a cook, too, he said. I told the boys the next day when we was having breakfast, but they were all going to go upriver or someplace else when the mine closed.
"But Jack, he said he'd like to do that cooking job, so he wired the boss at Ballard here, and he got the job too. So me and Jack, we'd be leaving Rampart on the next boat going downriver.
"Now, this one day I'd just come off shift and went down to the riverbank to watch all the goings-on around the steamboat that just came in. The steamer Clarice it was. The deckhands were loading the wood. They made a long line, throwing logs from one to the other like they do, you know, and it was better than a show, watching them drop a log and getting all tangled up. I was laughing so hard I nearly choked."
"So there I was, leaning against the woodpile down there at the riverbank, just watching all the hoorah, glad it wasn't me who had to get on that boat, go upriver, and quit the country. I rolled me a cigarette and was enjoying it, first one of the day, and watching Millie.
"Millie was one of the good-time girls, and she'd had a baby just a few weeks before. There she was with the bundle of baby, getting all her stuff put onboard the Clarice, hollering at the boys who were carrying her bags. A real witch, which was why everyone called her Mean Millie.
"When she was all finished yelling, she just walked up to me, where I was standing by the woodpile, smoking and minding my own business, and pushed this baby at me. 'Take this kid to Nulato on your way to the Koyukuk,' she said. 'The orphanage there. I'm not going to be stuck with this baby forever.'"
"I just dropped my cigarette and took that baby. Never even thought to say no, because I didn't like Mean Milllie and didn't think no baby should be stuck with her, either."
Arvid said Millie sailed across the gangplank onto the boat and didn't look back. The boat edged out into the current and was on its way up the Yukon before Arvid really thought about what he'd done.
Then Jack told his part.
He'd been taking out the slop bucket when he first saw her. "I stopped dead in my tracks when I saw the Swede with that baby, looking up the river at the boat going away. I knew right off that was Mean Millie's baby. Only baby in camp. 'Got you a baby,' I says to him. 'I do,' says Arvid. 'What are you going to do with it?' I says. 'Damned if I know,' he says.
"So I took hold of her fast because I didn't like the way her head was bobbing around. Easy to see that Swede didn't know nothing about babies. 'We'll bring it in the cookshack,' I told him, 'and we'll study about it.'"
Bo had stopped pasting furniture so she could listen very hard.
"And what did you do then?" Bo asked, hugging her elbows and hunching her shoulders with excitement, as if she didn't know what was coming next.
"Well, I knew all about babies. Lots of babies in our kitchen when I was growing up down South. But first thing I thought of was a bottle. 'Millie got to have left you a bottle,' I said. Maybe she was nursing that baby the natural way, but it didn't seem likely. 'No,' says Arvid. 'Didn't leave me nothing.' 'Well, what's its name?' I ask. 'She never said.'
'Boy or girl,' I ask. He just looks at me and pulls his shoulders up. Doesn't know.
"So I get some old flour sacks from the shelf and some safety pins from the sewing box and I tell Arvid, 'First off we've got to change its pants. That's first.' So I show him how to fold the flour sacks small enough so the baby's legs won't stick straight out at the sides like a frog. And I take off that old saggy wet diaper, which was all her mama left her, and we look at each other. 'A girl,' we both say, and we smile. 'We'll call her Bo,' I said. 'Bo?' says Arvid. 'Bo,' I says."
"Why'd you pick Bo?" asked Bo, like she always did.
"It was a name was just sent to me, just popped into my head," which was what Jack always said. "I told the Swede, I said, 'Don't want to give her a real name — let them do that at the orphanage.' Give her a real name, and we'd maybe get attached to her. Like you don't want to give a stray dog a name, you know."
Hank lit his pipe and threw the match in the ashtray. He'd already figured out that Jack wouldn't take it kindly if he threw anything on the floor.
"I wouldn't have called her Bo," he said.
Jack ignored that.
"Arvid went out to look in Millie's cabin for a bottle, and sure enough, he found one, all scummed over. He washed it up, and already we had a bottle and plenty of milk in the cookshack and plenty of flour sacks for diapers.
"'She can sleep in this here tomato sauce box. You can take the night shift,' I says to Arvid, 'and I'll do the day.' 'Night shift?' he says. 'Babies don't sleep all the time,' I says. 'When they're awake, someone has to feed them and change them. That's the night shift for you, and I'll do the day.'
"'I can't take her to the bunkhouse,' says Arvid. 'The boys will have my hide.' 'We'll put a cot out for you right here, no trouble,' I tell him." Jack winked at Hank. "I knew he'd have plenty trouble, sleeping in that little short cot, but I didn't want to discourage him."
Jack leaned back in his chair and laced his fingers together behind his head, smiling. Bo could see he liked this story as much as she did.
"Next day Arvid was going to make her some clothes," Jack said, "some little long shift things on his sewing machine, but the only material he had was that striped twill he used for work shirts, too rough for a baby. So he made some little shifts out of our undershirts, nice and soft. We figured she'd need a lot more clothes than that, so he told the boys he'd give a dollar to anyone would give him their undershirts to make her some other things.
Excerpted from Bo at Ballard Creek by Kirkpatrick Hill, LeUyen Pham. Copyright © 2013 Kirkpatrick Hill. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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