For Constable Paul Benson of the North-West Mounted Police, monotony is a blessing. As a provision inspector below the Chilkoot Pass during the Klondike Gold Rush, he's seen miserable conditions and gold fever turn civilized prospectors into madmen.
Joseph Starling is on his way to the Klondike to find the men who savagely beat him, murdered his eldest brother, and stole their mining machine. They'll kill his youngest brother if Joseph doesn't operate the machine for them-it won't work without him. With time running out, Joseph must purchase an expensive ticket aboard a crash-prone airship. But the station is miles away through dangerous terrain.
Under orders, Paul grudgingly escorts Joseph, but quickly finds himself intrigued by the young man. As they make their way toward Juneau, it's not just the need for warmth that drives them closer together. But neither man can draw an easy breath until they make it to the gold fields . . . and there's no guarantee that Joseph's brother will still be alive when they do.
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By L.A. Witt, Carole-ann Galloway
Riptide PublishingCopyright © 2014 L.A. Witt
All rights reserved.
September 1898 Just south of the Chilkoot Pass, Alaska-Canada Border
Snow crunched under my boots as I walked around the idling mech, ledger in hand. The hip-high flatbed was loaded down with provisions, every piece of which had to be cataloged by my team. The prospectors waiting for me to finish my inspection shifted their weight and spat tobacco. I could feel their irritated stares—God knew they weren't the first with no patience for the North-West Mounted Police's policies.
"Get on with it," one of them grumbled. "Didn't come all this way to freeze to death while you boys take your time."
I scowled, letting my wide-brimmed hat keep my distaste hidden as I continued to comb through the gear. Every man thought his team should be my priority, that his equipment needed to be inspected before everyone else's, and that every Mountie here—myself included—existed only to keep him from making his way north to the gold fields.
I glanced at Constable Taylor, who was inspecting the joints on one of the mech's eight brass legs to make sure they were mechanically sound. I was about to ask him how they looked, but—
"Hey! Hey there! This man needs help!"
My head snapped up. A prospector was jogging toward the gates outside our camp. Behind him, another mech lumbered across the snow, and men on either side of it frantically waved us over. Swearing under my breath, I dropped my ledger on top of the provisions I'd been inspecting and hurried toward the new arrivals with Taylor.
"Hey!" the other prospector called after us. "What about my gear?"
I ignored him.
"Damn lazy Mounties," someone snarled.
Taylor turned to—knowing him—shout at the man, but I grabbed his arm. "Don't pay them any attention."
He jerked his arm away but stayed with me. "Ungrateful bastards."
I grunted in agreement as we continued toward the gate.
The men directed us to their mech, which was carrying far fewer provisions than the others outside the camp. It was, however, carrying a man. I assumed it was a man, anyway—the team must've wrapped him in every fur, blanket, shirt, and spare flour sack they'd had on hand, God bless them.
"He's been out in the cold too long." One of them started to pull off the furs. "Damn near froze to—"
"Leave him covered." Sergeant Lamb appeared beside me and quickly took charge. "Bring the mech this way. Out of the wind."
One of the men on the team released the brake, and the mech jolted into motion. The flat, hooflike feet on its eight jointed legs crunched on the snow as it limped in through the gate. A man walked beside it, keeping a hand on the front left corner and nudging it every couple of steps to keep the thing on a straight path—the machine must've fallen or run into something along the way and bent a leg. Most of the mechs were wobbly to a certain degree by the time they'd made it this far, and they'd be a hell of a lot worse after going over Chilkoot Pass.
"Hey, they've got somebody riding the mech?" someone called out. "After we've all been told to stay off the damned things?"
A bearded man pointed at the motionless figure. "You got any better ideas for him? I wasn't going to carry the lad."
My heart was in my throat as they maneuvered the mech around behind the building to shelter it from the bitter wind. If a man came in on a mech, then he couldn't walk. Prospectors had been warned since the beginning of the stampede not to ride on the mechs. They were just too unpredictable and were usually loaded down anyway. Every team who crossed the Chilkoot did so with a mountain of provisions. Even after these men had removed enough to safely carry him, the crates and cans that remained didn't leave much space.
Not even for a man this small. He was young—the blond beard on his jaw barely covered his pale flesh.
"Where are all your provisions?" I asked.
The man gestured back at the northbound trail they'd just come up. "South of here. We've got men staying with 'em while we brought this one to you."
"Good. Good. Thank you. Most people would've left him to die out there. What's happened to him anyway?"
He shrugged. "Don't know. We found him a few miles back. The others with him said they thought he'd been robbed."
"Others?" I looked around. "Who?"
The man waved a hand in the direction they'd come from. "Long gone. They gave him space in their tent for a night, but they've all continued north."
"Of course they have," I muttered.
He shifted his weight. "We'd like to be getting back on the trail soon, though, if it's all the same to you. We've got a day's hike in each direction to get the rest of our men and provisions."
"Of course." I couldn't begrudge them that—they'd saved the boy's life by bringing him this far. He was lucky he'd been close to Chilkoot, and that the team who'd found him had been willing to bring him back to the pass. Greed did strange things to men, and I didn't want to imagine how many had perished on the trail because those passing by refused to let anything but their own deaths stand between them and their gold.
He pointed at the line of mechs and prospectors outside the inspection cabin. "I don't suppose we can get past this when we return."
I shook my head. "Sorry. The men waiting here would riot." I gestured at Constable Reese, who registered incoming teams. "Leave your name with him, though, and you'll be compensated with an extra ration of coal for your mech, as well as five dollars for additional provisions within the camp. Tell him Constable Benson authorized it."
The man nodded. "Thank you, sir."
"Benson! Need your help over here."
"You're welcome." I clapped the man's shoulder. "Thank you again." Then I hurried after the others and the blanket-wrapped kid.
"Get him to the doc." Sergeant Lamb jerked his head in the medical cabin's direction. "Quickly now. Boy's lucky he's still alive."
I glanced at the cabin, then turned back to the mech and its half-frozen cargo. "Someone get a stretcher from the shed. Taylor, help me get him out."
We took off all but a couple of blankets, carefully lifted the kid out of the cargo bed, and eased him down onto the stretcher that Lamb had laid on the packed snow. Taylor took the end by his feet, I took the end by his head, and we started toward the medic shack.
As we did, a blanket fell away from the kid's face. He was ghostly white, eyelids fluttering and lips moving, but I couldn't understand what, if anything, he was saying. Probably delirious nonsense anyway.
Lamb jogged ahead to let the staff know we were coming, and by the time we'd reached the door, two nurses and Doc Henderson were waiting.
Doc stood aside. "Take him to the back room. By the furnace."
In the back, we set him down on the floor, which was a damn sight warmer than our inspection cabin.
"Nurses, some hot blankets. And let's get these off him." Doc looked at me. "Where the hell'd you find this one?"
"Team brought him in. Said they thought he'd been robbed."
"Or stupid, if he's out there with no provisions."
"No." A nurse pulled one of the blankets back. "I think he has been robbed."
Doc and I both turned, and she gently lifted the kid's collar. An angry bruise started on the side of his throat and extended under his torn, bloodstained shirt.
Doc scowled. "Well, he's still alive and he needs someone to warm him up. Taylor, Benson—one of you strip down. The other, help me get him out of these clothes."
Without hesitation, I started unbuttoning my jacket.
Taylor eyed me, his lip curling slightly.
I glared at him. "You want to do it?"
"No, thank you." The lip curled a little more. "Wouldn't want to keep you from—"
"You gonna stand there?" Doc snapped. "Or help me?"
Taylor straightened, then turned to help Doc get the half-frozen kid out of his clothes.
"Whoever did this left his gloves and socks." Doc dropped one of the gloves on the floor. "If he lives, he'll keep all his fingers by the looks of it."
I pulled off my shirt. "He's damn lucky, then."
"Fingers and toes won't do a dead man any good." Doc glanced over his shoulder at me. "Hurry up."
I quickly removed my boots and started on my trousers.
"What the—" Taylor drew back. "Has he got a wooden leg?"
I paused and touched the kid's lower leg through his trousers. Cool, hard—difficult to say if it was metal or wood, but it was nothing he was born with. "He does."
"Get that off too." Doc waved a hand at it. "It'll just make him colder."
Taylor shuddered, but he continued undressing the boy while I stripped off my own clothes.
I'd seen the occasional artificial limb before, but this one looked strange. Complex.
After the others removed the leg, I lay down on the floor beside him. I jerked back from his ice-cold skin, hissing sharply before I made myself slide in close. Teeth chattering, I draped an arm over his torso, pulling him as close to me as I could, and concentrated on breathing as the others piled furs and blankets over us. I shivered, squeezing my eyes shut and reminding myself that this was only until he'd warmed up.
He was almost completely still. A few times, I thought I was holding a corpse, but then he'd murmur something or his arm would move. His foot grazed mine and I gasped—and silently vowed I'd never again complain about sharing a bed with someone's chilly feet. Even Christopher's had never beenthat cold.
Eventually, my shivering stopped. The kid's skin wasn't quite warm yet—this was markedly different from lying in bed pressed up against a lover's hot body—but he wasn't so cold now, either.
"How is he?" Doc's voice startled me, and I realized I'd been drifting off.
"Good." He crouched beside us and peered at the kid's face. "He looks a bit better. Not quite out of the woods, but better." His eyes flicked up and met mine. "Are you all right?"
I nodded. "Better than standing outside in the wind."
Doc chuckled. "Just about anything's better than that. Stay with him for now, just until I'm sure he can keep himself warm. Not much longer, though, and he'll probably be all right on his own."
"How about all his bruises? Is he badly hurt?"
"Hard to say. Could be some injuries below the surface." Doc shrugged. "But they haven't killed him yet and neither has the cold, so I suspect he'll be just fine once he's warmed up."
Doc grunted. "He must be. Made it this far with one leg." He shook his head. "Boy probably would've tried to cross the pass on his own and get all the way to the Klondike." He patted my arm through the thick blanket, and then stood. "I'll come back in a while. Just keep him warm."
I nodded, but said nothing.
Lying there beside the kid, with only his slow breathing and the grumble of the furnace to keep the silence at bay, I couldn't help but feel curious about him. Once in a while, ill-prepared fools made it this far. God knew how many of them died along the way.
Of course none of them were allowed to cross it—no one received a permit to continue into Canada without proper provisions. Still, I had to admire the sheer tenacity that brought a man through the horrible weather on a trail that was barely passable in places, driven by nothing more than the minuscule possibility of finding gold in the Klondike tundra.
This one, though? Did the damned kid have a death wish? He'd set out on the trail with a wooden leg and presumably alone. Yet somehow he'd survived the bitter cold, whatever had left him beaten and bruised, and probably near starvation if his somewhat gaunt body was any indication. How hungry for gold did someone have to be to endure what he had?
On the other hand, if he'd been robbed, there was a possibility he hadn't been alone at that point, and hadn't been without provisions. Perhaps the sole survivor of a massacred party? He wouldn't have been the first. But what massacre did a skinny, one-legged boy survive that a team of strong men didn't?
Eventually, the kid went from eerily still to sleeping peacefully. His chest rose and fell under my arm, and though his hands and foot remained cool, his trunk was warm. From time to time, he murmured in his sleep, but he didn't wake up fully.
Doc came back and determined the kid could be left to rest on his own. I climbed out of the cocoon of blankets, and shivered as the air touched my skin. I hadn't realized just how warm we had gotten. The room that had been almost stuffy before was suddenly chilly.
One of the nurses, God bless her, had left my clothes stacked on top of the furnace, and my boots up against the boiler. Once I'd dressed, I gave the kid one last look. His color had come back now, as if he'd been resting comfortably this whole time instead of staring Death in the face.
When I stepped out, Doc met me in the hall.
"Will he be all right?" I asked.
Doc shrugged. "He's got some color now, but he hasn't woken up yet. Once he's awake and gets some warm food down him, we'll see." He slapped my shoulder. "You done good, Constable. Go thaw yourself out at the baths. You've earned it."
I smiled. "Yes, sir." I glanced back. "You'll let me know how he's doing?"
"I've got a shack full of sick and wounded men, Benson. You want to know? Come by and check on him. He ain't going anywhere anytime soon."
"I'll do that. Thanks."
* * *
I couldn't get the boy out of my mind.
All day long, as I warmed myself in one of the steam-heated baths and then shivered my way through another afternoon's worth of inspections, I thought of him. Was he awake? Would he live? And who in the world was this man? I didn't even understand why he intrigued me so much, why my mind kept going back to him, but I couldn't stop thinking about him.
Curiosity nearly got the best of me, but there was a long, long line of incoming teams today. We needed all the men we could get to process them before sundown, especially with the days being so short this time of year.
When my shift ended, though, I made my way across the camp to the medic shack.
Wilson, another of the camp's doctors, stepped around the ragged curtain shielding a bed. "Paul, this is a surprise." He peered at me, an eyebrow arched. "You've not picked up something from one of the girls again, have you?"
My cheeks burned. "I have never—"
"I know, son." He laughed and clapped my arm hard enough to knock me off-balance. "It's safe to say you're the only man here who's never."
I gritted my teeth. At least he'd kept his joke fairly quiet this time. "I've come to see that boy we brought in earlier."
"The half-frozen kid, you mean?"
Knowing Wilson, I expected a shrug and "he's dead," but he gestured over his shoulder. "He's been awake, off and on. Kid's lucky." He paused. "Henderson said you were the one who warmed him up, now that I think of it. Good thing you did—he wouldn't have made it otherwise."
"He is lucky." I paused. "May I see him?"
He nodded and started back toward the beds, beckoning for me to follow.
As we walked down the narrow aisle between the beds and their curtain dividers, Wilson added, "I don't know what possessed him to try to go to the Klondike anyhow."
"Same thing that possesses every man," I grumbled. "Gold fever."
"Fair, but this one's got a— Oh, well, good evening, Joseph." He stopped, looking past a curtain that blocked my view. When he pulled the curtain aside, though, the boy—Joseph, apparently—was awake. "Thought you'd be sleeping. Didn't I say to get some rest?"
"I can't." The kid shifted, trying to push himself upright, but then sighed and sank against the mountain of lumpy pillows. "I need to get—"
"You need to rest." Wilson shook his head. "Shouldn't have been out there to begin with. You didn't really expect to make it all the way to Dawson City on a wooden leg, did you?"
"I've ..." The kid drew his tongue across his pale lips. "I've already been there."
"Already—" Wilson glanced at me. "What do you mean you've already been there?"
Joseph swallowed. "My brothers and I ... we've been to Dawson City. Mined what we could. We were ... we were on our way back." His eyes became clearer, and he inhaled sharply. "My brothers." He started to sit up again. "Oh God. They're—"
"Hey, hey. Easy, lad." Wilson touched Joseph's shoulder and pressed him back down.
I stood at the foot of the bed, arms folded across my jacket. "What happened out there?"
Joseph moistened his lips. "My brothers and I, the three of us were heading back from Dawson City. Just gotten to Ketchikan and were waiting to get on a boat back to Seattle. Some men heard about the—" He hesitated, eyes darting to Wilson and me. Then he released a breath. "They heard about the machinery we'd used. To dig for gold."
"Machinery?" Wilson asked. "What kind of machinery?"
"It's ..." Joseph shook his head. "It's complicated. My father's company built us some equipment. It thaws the ground and digs down faster than we could with hands and shovels. It also sorts the metals from the—" He waved a hand. "It's not important. But the men heard about it. And they heard we'd found a lot of gold with it."
Excerpted from Precious Metals by L.A. Witt, Carole-ann Galloway. Copyright © 2014 L.A. Witt. Excerpted by permission of Riptide Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
ContentsAbout Precious Metals,
Chapter 1: Paul,
Chapter 2: Joseph,
Chapter 3: Paul,
Chapter 4: Joseph,
Chapter 5: Paul,
Chapter 6: Joseph,
Chapter 7: Paul,
Chapter 8: Joseph,
Chapter 9: Paul,
Chapter 10: Joseph,
Chapter 11: Paul,
Chapter 12: Joseph,
Chapter 13: Paul,
Chapter 14: Joseph,
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