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.
This book was previously published.
TITLE: Precious Metals
COVER ARTIST: Lori Witt
LENGTH: 40,000 words
GENRE(S): Steampunk, Speculative Fiction
Also available as part of the Metals Collection.
CHAPTER ONE - Paul
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 been that 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.”
“You did find gold, then?” I asked.
“We found a good deposit, and happened to have the equipment to get it out faster than anyone else could have. It was enough we could’ve lived off it for the rest of our lives.” Sagging against the pillows, he squeezed his eyes shut. “But they robbed us. Middle of the night. My eldest brother, he . . .” Joseph’s grimace explained what had become of the eldest.
“And your second brother?” I asked quietly.
“Kidnapped.” He scratched his jaw, rough fingers hissing across his thin, coarse beard. “Along with the machine. They tried to take me too, but I got away.”
“You got away?” Wilson quirked an eyebrow. “With your leg like—”
“I’ve had the damned thing since I was a child,” Joseph snapped, glaring up at the doctor. “I can’t run fast, but I can run.” His expression softened again as his gaze shifted back to me. “Look, they ambushed us. Where we were camping on our way back to Seattle. They said . . . they said they were going to take us all back to Dawson City. To mine more gold. That we’d run the machine for them or they’d shoot us.” He shuddered, his lips pulling tight, and I was surprised his eyes didn’t well up as he went on. “We made a break for it, but I was the only one who got away. When I came back, Sam was dead, David was gone, and so was the equipment. Someone told me they saw them heading north, but . . .” Joseph flinched. “That was the last I saw or heard of them.”
Wilson and I exchanged glances.
“Who are these men?” I asked.
“I don’t know.” He rubbed a hand over his face, wincing when he brushed the bruise by his hairline. “I tried to catch up, but then some robbers got me. They beat me pretty bad, but I got away. Farther north I got, the cold started getting worse, and . . .” He sighed. “I tried to get help from a few teams, but none of them had room or provisions.”
My chest tightened. They were likely short on provisions, but I suspected the real reason was that none of them wanted to be slowed down by a beaten-up cripple.
“I might’ve done all right if I hadn’t been robbed.” Joseph swore under his breath. “But it doesn’t matter. I need to get on the trail. God knows how far ahead of me those bastards are with my brother.”
“Whoa, whoa.” Wilson put up his hands. “You are in no condition to be out there again.”
“I don’t have a choice.” Joseph turned to him. “They’re on their way back to Dawson City with my brother and our mining equipment. I have to go find—”
“You’re not going anywhere, son.” Wilson shook his head. “You won’t do him or anyone a bit of good if you’re dead out there in the snow.”
“And you’re—” I exhaled and avoided Joseph’s eyes. “You won’t be allowed over the pass. Not without—”
“I’m not going to the gold fields to mine! I don’t need a year’s worth of provisions to save my brother and go home.”
I shifted my weight. It didn’t actually have to be a year’s worth, but at least enough to survive. Much as I felt for him, I couldn’t justify letting him through without the required gear. Not unless I wanted another riot on my hands. “I’m sorry, I—”
“Go to hell.”
Wilson sighed. “Son, just get some rest. You’re in no condition to be going anywhere anyhow, and you can work out the particulars with him”—he nodded toward me—“while you recover. I have other men waiting to be seen, though, so if you’ll both excuse me.”
I watched him go, then turned back to Joseph. “Listen, it’s not that I don’t sympathize. I do. But—”
“Please.” The hostility in his tone vanished, and he stared up at me, eyes wide. “Please. I need to find my brother.”
I swallowed. “You need to recover. You’re—”
“They’re going to kill him.” He swept his tongue across his still-pale lips. “Thing is, the machine won’t work without me. It’s . . . difficult to explain, but my brother can’t . . . he can’t run it. Not without me.” Joseph swallowed hard. The fear in his eyes was as palpable as the Yukon chill on the back of my neck. “And if he doesn’t, they will kill him.”
I gnawed the inside of my cheek. Though I understood the rules and the reasons behind the bureaucracy, I couldn’t look this kid in the eye and tell him he wasn’t allowed to do whatever it took to save his brother.
“Please,” he begged, barely whispering. “He’s just a boy. I can’t let them hurt him.”
I lowered my gaze. “I’ll see what I can do.”
CHAPTER TWO - Joseph
My various wounds and bruises were sore, but healing. I sat up in the hard bed and grimaced as my muscles protested. The sooner I got out of this place, the better. Winter was closing in fast, and the cold would only slow me down. Though after a year in Dawson City, plus the months it had taken to get there, I was used to the bitter weather. Well, as used to it as any man could get—it still clawed its way under my skin and made my lungs ache and my joints protest.
Now that I’d slept someplace warm, and that cold had melted out of my bones, I could finally feel what the robbers had done to me. The bruises were glowing coals under my skin, in my chest and back. My fingers were stiff, though I couldn’t be sure if it was from the cold or from the angry bruises on my knuckles. I could suffer through that particular pain, though—it meant the cold hadn’t taken my hands.
But what about—
Panic jolted me upright. My leg. Where the hell was my leg? My clothes were folded on top of the furnace, but . . . my leg? I’d been so distracted earlier, I hadn’t even realized it was gone.
Oh God. They didn’t steal it. Did they?
A nurse appeared in the doorway and smiled. “Well, well. Look who’s awake.”
“My leg.” I swallowed. “I . . .” Had someone taken it while—
“Right here, darlin’.” She carefully lifted it out from beneath the bed. “They took it off while you were warming up.”
I exhaled. “Thank you.”
“I’m going to go find you some food. You look like you haven’t eaten in weeks.”
I thanked her again. I felt like I hadn’t eaten in weeks. Food hadn’t been easy to come by. Not many teams were willing to share even a meager ration of beans and coffee with a passing beggar.
How ironic. Not so long ago, my brothers and I were richer than we’d ever imagined possible. And now I was a lone beggar.
While she was gone, I gingerly got out of bed and pulled on my clothes. Then sat on the edge of the bed. In spite of my aching fingers, I buckled my leg into place with ease. I’d always been grateful that Father had found a way to put a pad between the metal and the stump, and I was more grateful than ever for it now—the pad was hard, but not nearly as hard as metal would’ve been against my tender flesh.
The nurse returned with soup and coffee. “I’ve sent one of the girls off to find you something more substantial, but this will help.”
It definitely helped. Though the broth was almost saltless and tasted more like the inside of a pot than anything else, it was warm, and the bland, mushy meat and vegetables were the most delicious thing I’d eaten in years.
While I ate, the nurse asked, “How are you feeling?”
“I’m not sure yet.” I met her eyes. “I don’t even know where I am.”
“You’re at the North-West Mounted Police inspection station at Chilkoot Pass.”
“So I’m . . .” I straightened. “Chilkoot Pass, you said?”
Relief swept over me. Finally, some good news. “Thank God. I thought I still had miles to go.”
“Well, be glad you made it. Those gentlemen who brought you here were saints, considering how many of ’em would’ve just left you out there.”
“The . . .” I cocked my head. “I don’t remember . . .”
“I don’t imagine you do.” She patted my arm, and her eyebrows knitted together. “You didn’t wake up until you’d been here for hours.”
My heart thundered against my rib cage. How close had I come to dying?
The nurse left after a while, returning to bring me some bread, beef jerky, and hard cheese. I’d barely bitten into that when heavy boots clomping on the floor turned my head.
The Mountie who’d come to see me earlier appeared, holding his hat in front of his red jacket. “Uh, hello.”
“How are you feeling?”
“I never did introduce myself.” He peeled off his glove and extended his hand. “Constable Benson. Err, you can call me Paul.”
“Okay. Paul.” I hesitated, but then accepted the offered hand. “Joseph Starling.”
Paul’s skin was warm, his grip firm but still gentle. As he released me, he said, “Doc says you should be fit to travel in no time.”
“Good. Because I have no time.”
Paul pursed his lips. Then he set his hat and gloves down and gestured at the side of the bed. “May I?”
He sat on the edge and kept his voice low. “Listen, I realize you want to leave and find your brother. But you know as well as anyone how dangerous it is out there.”
“I do. That’s why I need to find him.”
“I understand that.”
I searched his expression. “But you and your men aren’t going to give me a permit to go over the pass, are you?”
Paul eyed me for a moment. “Are . . . are you even sure you can make the journey yourself?”
I gritted my teeth. “If this is about my leg, it’s—”
“It’s dangerous out there for any man,” he said flatly.
I raised an eyebrow. “Especially one who’s missing a leg.”
“I wouldn’t send a man with two legs out there alone.” He folded his arms loosely across his red jacket. “Unless another night of nearly dying from the cold is what you’re aiming for.”
I shuddered at the memory. “I have to try. I told you, if I don’t get my brother back before they get to Dawson City, they’re going to find out he can’t work the machinery, and they’ll kill him.”
Paul studied me. “And you’re certain he can’t? You said he’s just a boy, but if he can mine, then can’t—”
“He can’t.” I held his gaze. “Trust me. He can’t. And they will.”
“That doesn’t change the fact that even well-provisioned teams of grown men die out there all the time.”
I narrowed my eyes. “I’ll take my chances.”
“You won’t help your brother if you’re dead.”
“And I won’t help him if I stay here, either.” I shoved some of the food they’d given me into my knapsack and glared at him. “Listen, sun comes up tomorrow, I’m leaving for Dawson City. If you don’t think a one-legged man’s got any business out there on his own, then come with me, but I am going.” I set my jaw. “And the only way anyone’s keeping me from crossing that pass is if they shoot me.”
Paul’s expression didn’t change.
My shoulders sagged. “What do you want me to do? Let them take him all the way up to Dawson City and kill him in a gold field?” I shook my head as I forced back the lump that tried to rise in my throat. “I can’t. If someone shoots me trying to go to him, then so be it, but the last step I take will be going north.”
He studied me for a long moment. Then he sighed. “It’s not a lack of sympathy, Joseph. I swear it’s not. But there’s a reason we can’t let people over the pass without proper provisions.” He shrugged apologetically. “It took almost a year to get the famine in Dawson City under control because everyone was so badly prepared.”
“I know. I was there.”
“So you understand—”
“I understand why you don’t let teams of men cross the pass without adequate supplies to last while they’re traveling and digging,” I growled. “What I don’t understand is why you’d stop one man from going so his brother doesn’t die.”
“Because if I let one man go, and word gets out, I’ll have a riot on my hands.” He waved at the curtain-covered window. “You haven’t seen the rest of this encampment. We have a thousand men here already, all of them waiting to cross into Canada, and there’s dozens more arriving daily. We nearly had fights break out when you arrived because we halted an inspection to bring you in.”
I tensed. “What?”
“I was in the middle of an inspection when you arrived. When we let in the team carrying you on their mech, the other teams nearly went mad.” He swallowed. “If we allow you to cross the pass alone, without provisions, and ahead of the other men awaiting authorization—”
“Who needs to know? I can leave in the middle of the night if—”
“And what?” He raised an eyebrow. “Freeze to death between here and the top of the pass?”
I pushed out a breath through clenched teeth. “Just help me. Somehow. Whatever you have to do. Let me into Canada. Please.”
He fell silent. My heart beat faster and faster.
Please, Paul . . .
But he just sighed again. “I can’t. All it would take is a rumor, and this place would fall into chaos.” He shook his head. “I’m sorry.”
I narrowed my eyes. “Somehow I doubt that.”
“I’m leaving when the sun comes up tomorrow. If you won’t help me, at least don’t stop me.”
Paul said nothing.
The sun had just risen when I left the medic shack the next morning. My body was still frustratingly weak, and I walked half as fast as I ought to, but I couldn’t stay here. Not while David was out there.
I’d stolen a blanket from the bed I’d been occupying and stuffed it into my pack, and then huddled inside a thick jacket that one of the nurses had procured for me. Bundled up and thinly provisioned, I limped out into the snow, cursing with every uncomfortable step. I’d mastered using a false leg years ago, and Father had created this one specifically to allow me to move without anyone knowing I had it. Thanks to a complex system of tiny pulleys and gears, the knee and ankle both flexed like my good leg.
Just before I’d reached Chilkoot Pass, one of the robbers who’d left me to die in the cold had hobbled me with a swift kick to the side of the artificial knee. The kick had damaged the gears inside the joint, and the impact had bruised the stump just enough to make every step hurt. At least I’d been able to fix it—my father had fashioned several compartments inside the calf to store tools and spare parts—but the bruise would have to heal on its own, and until it did, I’d have to walk like the cripple I was.
And damn it, that limp made me stand out. Paul had no doubt alerted all of his men to watch for the lame man trying to slip away from the camp, not realizing I could normally walk as well as anyone else.
My stomach roiled as I made my way across the encampment to the gate. A long line of teams waited, mechs idling and men grumbling as the Mounties checked their permits before letting them out.
I understood the rationale behind the inspections and the permits. Dawson City had been hell when we’d gotten there—men starving to death all over because no one had enough provisions. Once the Mounties had started enforcing these requirements, the famine had ended, but it had been a miserable, terrifying period. Starvation and gold fever didn’t mix well.
But every hour I was cooped up in this camp was another hour those men dragged David closer to the gold fields.
Wincing with each step, I continued toward the trail.
The voice halted me in my tracks. I turned around, and my teeth ground together when I saw that distinctive red uniform. “What?”
“Where are you going?”
I tugged at one of the straps digging into my shoulder. “North.”
“Not alone. And not without a permit.”
“For God’s sake, I need—”
“Do you see all those men?” He pointed a gloved finger at the crowd of prospectors lined up outside the inspection station. “You go past them, they’ll riot. And when they do”—he turned the gesture toward the camp and its endless sea of tent peaks—“so will they.”
I exhaled. “What do I do, then?”
“You get a proper permit and—”
“I . . . You know we can’t do that. But I—”
“Then we’re wasting time.” I turned to leave, but he stopped me with a firm hand on my elbow.
“I can’t let you go over the pass. I’m sorry.”
I jerked free. “Of course you are.”
“Hey,” another Mountie broke in, his hand resting on the butt of the pistol on his belt. “There a problem here?”
“No. It’s under control.” Paul looked at me, and took my arm again. “Come with me. I might be able—”
“What? Are you arrest—”
“No, I’m not arresting you,” he hissed. He turned to the other Mountie and waved him away.
The man hesitated, hand still on his pistol. “He gives you any trouble, shout.”
I swallowed, eyeing the gun.
“I will.” Paul glared at him. The Mountie finally walked away. Paul faced me again. “I want to help you, Joseph. Come with me and—”
I dug my heels in. “Where? And why?”
He sighed. “To the cabin.” He jerked his head in the direction of the cluster of cabins by the gate. “My sergeant and I might be able to help. Maybe offer another solution.”
I swallowed. I was dubious, but if Paul didn’t stop me, one of the other Mounties would. And I’d heard there were more of them up on the pass. I couldn’t even fend off robbers. A group of Mounties? I didn’t stand a chance. Much as I hated to admit it, I needed more than these men’s blessing to continue to Dawson City—I needed their help.
Might as well see if the sergeant really was able and willing to help me.
He led me into the cabin. There, his commander—Sergeant Lamb—listened quietly while I pleaded my case.
He sat back in his chair, arms folded across his red jacket. “This is madness, son.” Lamb scowled at me. “Even if you make it over the pass, you’re a dead man.”
“What choice do I have?” I threw up my hands. “You can’t really believe I’ll just sit here and let those men kill my brother.”
“There’s . . .” Paul hesitated. “There might be a faster way. And a safer one, with no need for a mech and provisions.”
I blinked. “What?”
Paul took a breath. “It’s dangerous and expensive, but—”
“Every way is dangerous.”
“Aye.” He hesitated again. “But assuming it stays in the air, an airship could get you there faster than your own feet.”
“An airship?” I huffed sharply. “No, no. Even if the damned things didn’t crash as often as they do, all my gold is gone. I can’t afford it!”
“Given your circumstances, the pilots may be willing to—”
“May be?” I snorted. “I’m not going back to Juneau for a ‘maybe.’”
“The other option is to die trying to get to Dawson City. That’s nearly five hundred miles from here.”
“Assuming you’ll even let me leave,” I snarled. “And besides, south to Juneau is more than a hundred and fifty miles in the wrong direction, especially if I go that far only to find I can’t get on one of those death traps.”
Paul shifted his weight, the boards creaking under his boots. “Not if you go via Skagway.”
I raised my eyebrows.
He glanced at Lamb, and when the sergeant nodded, said, “It’s rough terrain from here to Skagway, but only about twenty-five miles, and then a boat to Juneau. From there, airships leave once, sometimes twice a week.”
“And what about the cost?” I shook my head. “I can’t even afford to eat. A boat ticket and an airship ticket? Not a chance.”
Lamb chewed his thumbnail. “Perhaps we can help. I’ll provide a few dollars for the boat ticket, and for the airship, I’ll send a formal request with you. On behalf of the North-West Mounted Police.”
“And that . . . that’ll be enough?”
“I’m not sure what else I can offer. Though a personal escort would help.” Lamb faced Paul. “You’re going to Juneau with him.”
Paul’s eyes widened. “What? That wasn’t what we discuss—”
“Is that a problem, Constable?”
Paul’s lips pulled tight. “No, Sergeant. Of course not.”
I put up a hand. “I’d rather go alone than with someone who—”
“If you want to get on an airship,” Lamb said coldly, “then you’ll let him escort you. You need all the help you can get to make sure you’re aboard that craft.” He tilted his head toward the gate. “Because I guarantee you’re not getting over the pass.”
I shifted uncomfortably. Their idea was a long shot, but I couldn’t deny my own plan wasn’t a good one. I didn’t like any of my options, but if theirs worked, it would get me to Dawson City faster than my own legs. I turned to Paul. “You think you can negotiate with the pilots?”
“Of course he can,” Lamb said. “And two men are better equipped against the elements than one.” Lamb waved Paul away. “Go pack your things, Constable. You boys need to go. Quickly. Days are getting too short to waste time.”
“Yes, sir.” Paul muttered something profane under his breath on his way out of the cabin. The sergeant glared at the empty doorway, but shook his head and didn’t say anything.
While we waited, Lamb loaded up my pack with some extra food and a thick blanket. When Paul returned, the sergeant gave him a letter formally requesting that I be granted passage via airship. Paul tucked the letter inside his jacket and hoisted his pack onto his shoulders. He’d packed heavily: bedroll, likely some food. A tent, thank God. We wouldn’t be living in high luxury, but between us, we probably had enough to keep us alive until we made it to Skagway and Juneau.
Paul turned to me. “Ready?” he asked dryly.
I nodded. Heart pounding, I followed him outside and past the inspection station gate.
In a few days’ time, we’d be in Skagway, and from there, Juneau. Then I just prayed the letter in Paul’s jacket would secure me passage to Dawson City.
And I prayed that the airship would get me there in time.