Overview: It’s 1897. Gold has been discovered in the Yukon. New York is under the sway of Hearst and Pulitzer. And in a few months, an American battleship will explode in a Cuban harbor, plunging the U.S. into war. Spanning five years and half a dozen countries, this is the unforgettable story of that extraordinary moment: the turn of the twentieth century, as seen by one of the greatest storytellers of our time.

Shot through with a lyrical intensity and stunning detail that recall Doctorow and Deadwood both, A Moment in the Sun takes the whole era in its sights from the white racist coup in Wilmington, North Carolina to the bloody dawn of U.S. interventionism in the Philippines. Beginning with Hod Brackenridge searching for his fortune in the North, and hurtling forward on the voices of a breathtaking range of men and women Royal Scott, an African American infantryman whose life outside the military has been destroyed; Diosdado Concepcíon, a Filipino insurgent fighting against his country’s new colonizers; and more than a dozen others, Mark Twain and President McKinley’s assassin among them this is a story as big as its subject: history rediscovered through the lives of the people who made it happen.

 

A Moment in the Sun by John Sayles Book Chapter One

 

GOLD FEVER

Hod is the first on deck to see smoke.
“That must be it,” he says, pointing ahead to where the mountains rise up and pinch together to close off the channel. “Dyea.”
There is a rush then, stampeders running to the fore and jostling for position, climbing onto the bales of cargo lashed to the deck to see over the crush, herding at a rumor as they have since the Utopia pulled away from the cheering throngs in Seattle, panicked that someone else might get there first. Store clerks and farmers, teamsters and railroad hands, failed proprietors and adventurous college boys and scheming hucksters and not a few fellow refugees from the underground. Hod has done every donkey job to be had in a mine, timbering, mucking ore with shovel and cart, laying track, single-jacking shoot holes with a hand auger. He knows how to look for colors in a riverbank, knows what is likely worth the sweat of digging out and what isn’t. But the look in the eyes of the men crowding him up the gangplank, the press of the hungry, goldstruck mass of them, five days jammed shoulder-to-shoulder at the rail of the steamer dodging hot cinders from the stack, half of them sick and feeding the fish or groaning below in their bunks as the other half watch the islands slide by and share rumors and warnings about a land none have ever set foot on—he understands that it will be luck and not skill that brings fortune in the North.
Though skill might keep you alive through the winter.
“Store clerk outta Missouri, wouldn’t know a mineshaft from a hole in the ground, wanders off the trail to relieve himself? Stubs his toe on a nugget big as a turkey egg.”
“You pay gold dust for whatever you need up there—won’t take no paper money or stamped coin. Every night at closing they sweep the barroom floors, there’s twenty, thirty dollars in gold they sift outta the sawdust.”
“Canadian Mounties sittin up at the top of the Pass got a weigh station. It’s a full ton of provisions, what they think should stand you for a year, or no dice. Couple ounces shy and them red-jacketed sonsabitches’ll turn you back.”
“Put a little whiskey in your canteen with the water so it don’t freeze.”
“Hell, put a little whiskey in your bloodstream so you don’t freeze. Tee-totaller won’t make it halfway through September in the Yukon.”
“Indins up there been pacified a long time now. It’s the wolves you need to steer clear of.”
“The thing is, brother, if you can hit it and hold on to it, you float up into a whole nother world. Any time you pass an opera house west of the Rockies, the name on it belongs to another clueless pilgrim what stumbled on a jackpot. This Yukon is the last place on earth the game aint been rigged yet.”
If the game isn’t rigged in Dyea it is not for lack of trying.
There is no dock at the mouth of the river, greenhorns shouting in protest as their provisions are dumped roughly onto lighters from the anchored steamer, shouting more as they leap or are shoved down from the deck to ferry in with the goods and shouting still to see them hurled from the lighters onto the mudflats that lead back to the raw little camp, deckhands heaving sacks and crates and bundles with no regard for ownership or fragility, and then every man for himself to haul his scattered outfit to higher ground before the seawater can ruin it.
“Fifty bucks I give you a hand with that,” says a rum-reeking local with tobacco stain in his beard.
“Heard it was twenty.” Hod with his arms full, one hand pressed to cover a tear in a sack of flour.
“Outgoing tide it’s twenty. When she’s rolling in like this—” the local grins, spits red juice onto the wet stones, “—well, it sorter follows the law of supply and demand.” Hod takes a moment too long to consider and loses the porter to a huffing Swede who offers fifty-five. Left to his own, he hustles back and forth to build a small mountain of his food and gear on a hummock by a fresh-cut tree stump, crashing into other burdened stampeders in the mad scramble, gulls wheeling noisily overhead in the darkening sky, little channel waves licking his boots on the last trip then three dry steps before he collapses exhausted on his pile.
When he gets his breath back Hod sits up to see where he’s landed. There are eagles, not so noble-looking as the ones that spread their wings on the coins and bills of the nation, eagles skulking on the riverbank, eagles thick in the trees back from the mudflats. He has never seen a live one before.
“They’ll get into your sowbelly, you leave it out in the open,” says the leathery one-eyed Indian who squats by his load.
“I don’t plan to.”
“Better get a move on, then. That tide don’t stay where it is.”
The man introduces himself as Joe Raven and is something called a Tlingit and there is no bargaining with him.
“Twelve cents a pound. Healy and Wilson charge you twice that. Be two hundred fifty to pack this whole mess to the base of the Pass. We leave at first light.”
It is already late in the season, no time to waste lugging supplies piecemeal from camp to camp when the lakes are near freezing and the goldfields will soon be picked over. All around them Indians and the scruffy-bearded local white men are auctioning their services off to the highest bidder. One stampeder runs frantically from group to group, shouting numbers, looking like he’ll pop if he’s not the first to get his stake off the beach.
“That’s about all the money I got,” says Hod.
The Tlingit winks his good eye and begins to pile Hod’s goods onto a runnerless sledge. “Hauling this much grub, you won’t starve right away.” He tosses a stone at an eagle sidling close and it flaps off a few yards, croaking with annoyance, before settling onto the flats again.
“Eat on a dead dog, eat the eyes out of spawn fish, pick through horseshit if it’s fresh. Lazy bastards.” Joe Raven winks his single eye again. “Just like us Tlingits.”
The Indian wakes him well before first light.
“Best get on the trail,” he says, “before it jams up with people.”
Hod rises stiffly, the night spent sleeping in fits out with his goods, laughter and cursing and a few gunshots drifting over from the jumble of raw wood shanties and smoke-grimed tents that have spread, scabies-like, a few hundred yards in from the riverbank.
“Any chance for breakfast in town?”
“The less you have to do with that mess,” says Joe Raven, “the better off you be.”
As they head out there are eagles still, filling the trees, sleeping.
The eight miles from Dyea to Canyon City is relatively flat but rough enough, Hod’s outfit loaded on the backs of Joe’s brothers and wives and cousins and grinning little nephews, a sly-eyed bunch who break out a greasy deck of cards whenever they pause to rest or to let Hod catch up. Fortunes, or at least the day’s wages, pass back and forth with much ribbing in a language he can’t catch the rhythm of. Hod struggles along with his own unbalanced load, clambering over felled trees and jagged boulders bigger than any he’s ever seen, saving ten dollars and raising a crop of angry blisters on his feet as the trail winds through a narrow canyon, skirting the river then wandering away from it.
“Boots ’pear a tad big for you,” says Joe Raven.
The way he has to cock his head to focus the one eye on you, Hod can’t tell if the Indian is mocking him or not.
“Might be.” He is trying not to limp, trying desperately to keep up.
“Don’t worry. By tomorrow your feet’ll swoll up to fill em.”
Canyon City is only another junkheap of tents and baggage near a waterfall. Hod forks over two fresh-minted silver dollars for hot biscuits and a fried egg served on a plate not completely scraped clean of the last man’s lunch while the Indians sit on their loads outside and chew on dried moose, taking up the cards again.
“Gamblingest sonsabitches I ever seen,” says the grizzled packer sitting by him on the bench in the grub tent. “Worse than Chinamen.”
“I’m paying twelve cents a pound,” says Hod. The coffee is bitter but hot off the stovetop. “That fair?”
The packer looks him over and Hod flushes, aware of just how new all his clothes are. “What’s fair is whatever one fella is willin to pay and another is willin to do the job for at the moment,” says the man, biscuit crumbs clinging to his stubble. “Three months ago that egg’d cost you five dollars. Just a matter of what you want and how bad you want it.”
After Canyon City the trail starts to rise, Hod lagging farther behind the Tlingits and thinking seriously about what he might dump and come back for later. There are discarded goods marking both sides of the path, things people have decided they can survive without in the wilderness beyond, some with price tags still attached.
“We maybe pick these up on the way back,” says Joe Raven, lagging to check on Hod’s progress. “Sell em to the next boatload of greenhorns come in.”
A small, legless piano lays in the crook of a bend in the trail, and Hod can’t resist stopping to toe a couple muffled, forlorn notes with his boot.
“Man could haul that over far as Dawson and play it, be worth its weight in gold,” says Joe, and then is gone up the trail.
The light begins to fade and the Indians pull far ahead. Whenever Hod thinks he’s caught up he finds only another group of trudging pilgrims who report not to have seen them. He staggers on, over and around the deadfall, searching for footprints in the early snow. I’m a fool and a tenderfoot, he thinks, heart sinking. They’ve stolen it all and I’ll be the laugh of the north country. It is dark and steep and slippery, his pack rubbing the skin off his back and his feet screaming with every step when he stumbles into the lot of them, smoking and laughing in a lantern-lit circle around the dog-eared cards.
“Another mile up to Sheep Camp,” mutters Joe Raven, barely looking up from the game. “Gonna blow heavy tonight, so we best skedaddle.”
If he takes his load off for a moment he’ll never be able to hoist it again. “Let me just catch my breath,” says Hod, holding on to a sapling to keep himself from sliding back down the incline while the Indians gather the rest of his outfit onto their backs.
“You doing pretty good for a cheechako,” Joe tells him, adjusting the deer-hide tumpline across his forehead. “We had one, his heart give out right about this section. Had to pack him back to Dyea, sell his goods to raise the passage home. Somewhere called Iowa, they said his body went.”
The night wind catches them halfway up to Sheep Camp, and when the sharper at the entrance asks Hod for two dollars to collapse, still dressed, onto a carpet of spruce boughs covered with canvas in a flapping tent shared with a dozen other men, he hands it over without comment.
In his sleep Hod walks ten miles, uphill and with a load on his back.
“We take you to the Stairs, but we don’t climb,” says Joe Raven as they dump his goods next to a hundred other piles in the little flat area at the bottom of the big slope. “Too many fresh suckers comin in to Dyea every day to bother with this mess.”
The last of the tall spruce and alder dealt out yesterday evening, only a handful of wind-stunted dwarf trees left along the trek from Sheep Camp to the Stairs, and now nothing but a wall of rock and snowfield faces them, near vertical, all the way to the summit. There is a black line of pack-hauling pilgrims already crawling up the steps chopped into the ice, and here on the flat ground an ever-growing mob of adventurers crowded around a pair of freightage scales to weigh their outfits before starting the climb.
“Gonna take you a couple days, maybe twenty trips,” says Joe Raven, counting Hod’s money.
“When I take a load up, what’s to keep folks from stealing the rest of my outfit?”
The Tlingit winks. “Anything you steal down here, you got to carry it up.”
“But whatever I leave at the top while I’m hauling the next load—”
“You white fellers don’t much trust each other, do you?” the Indian grins, then rousts his tribe of relatives with a whistle.
When Hod puts his outfit on the balance it is scant forty pounds.
“Sell you four sacks of cornmeal, twenty dollars,” says one sharper loitering by the scales.
“Sell you this yere case of canned goods, beans and peas, for fifteen,” says another.
“I got these rocks here,” says a third. “You roll em in your bedding, slip em in with your flour and soda, Mounties won’t take no notice. Good clean rocks, ten cent a pound.”
“You aint that short, buddy,” says another man, a stampeder from the look of him, pale yellow stubble on his face and pale eyes, one blue, one green, and pale skin made raw from the weather. “You can pick up twice that weight from what’s been cast away on the trip up.”
He says his name is Whitey, just Whitey, and that he’s from Missouri and has been waiting here since yesterday, searching for a face he can trust.
“The deal with this Chilkoot,” he says, “is you always got to have one man mindin the store while the other carries the next lot up, then you switch off. It’s simple mathematics.”
Whitey shows Hod his own pile, the same goods bought for the same double prices from the same outfitters in Seattle. “One load comes from your pile, then the next from mine. It don’t matter who carries what, we both do the same amount of work and both get to spell ourselves at the top while the other climbs. It gets dark, one of us stays up there with what we’ve carried and the other down here with what’s left. We’ll get her done in half the time and won’t be wore out for the rest of it.”
It sounds good enough to Hod. They help each other load up, making packs with rope and canvas and tying on near seventy pounds apiece for the first trip.
“No matter how weary you get, don’t step out of line to rest once you’re on them Golden Stairs,” says Whitey as they nudge their way into the crowd of men at the base of the footpath. “Takes a good long spell to squeeze back in.”
They start up, Whitey climbing a half-dozen men above Hod. The blasting cold air and the hazardous footing and the weight on Hod’s back drives all thought away, his whole life tunneling down to the bend of the knees of the man in front of him, left, now right, now left, thigh muscles knotting as he follows in step, keeping count at first, step after slippery step, then giving up when the idea of the thousands more ahead proves unbearable.
The first thing left by the stairs is a huge cook pot, iron rusted a different color on its uphill side, that looks to have been there some while. Then wooden boxes and crates, dozens of them, and who has the energy to stop and look inside as the wind cuts sharp across the face of the slope, and next it is men littering the sides of the line of climbers, some bent over with exhaustion or waiting for a moment’s gap to rejoin the file, others splayed out on the mountain face with their heels dug in to keep from sliding, helpless as tipped turtles with their pack harnesses up around their necks, weeping.
This is where you earn it. Of course it is still a gamble, gathering all his life’s toil into one stake and chasing after gold. But it isn’t a weak man’s play like laying it on poker or faro, hoping the numbers will smile on you and shun the rest at the table. The weak ones will falter here, only those with the strength, with the will to pull their burdens over this mountain and then down five hundred miles of raging, ice-choked river, will even get to roll their dice in the Yukon. For the first time since he was herded onto the steamer with the rest of the stampeders, Hod feels truly hopeful, long odds getting shorter with each busted, despairing pilgrim he passes.
I will stomp this mountain flat, he thinks, leaning into the slope and forcing himself not to look up when the trail curves enough to let him see past the men ahead to the distant summit. No use worrying about how far it still is. Afternoon sun and the friction of boots slick the icy gouges, stairs only in a manner of speaking, and though there is a rope you can grab on to it is ice-crusted and unreliable, the great mass above and behind jerking it one way or the other, and Hod vows on his next trip to get one of the alpenstocks they’re selling at the bottom. His legs burn, then ache, then go to numb rubber and then suddenly it is over, teetering sideways to flop in the snow next to Whitey and a half-dozen others. Whitey is laughing and wheezing, pointing at the unbroken line of men and yes, a few women, that stretches all the way down Long Hill and ends in a black pool of those waiting to start the climb.
“You figure if God got a sense of humor,” he says, “this is a real knee-slapper.”
They pick a spot in the middle of the hundreds of caches to unload their packs, then walk together to the edge of the ridge.
“You lookin a might leg-weary, buddy,” says Whitey, a shining new shovel slung over his shoulder. “I’d better make the next run.”
There are two chutes running down the slope, icy sides polished with the traffic of bodies. Some men have made crude sleds and some just lay on their backs and draw their knees up to their chest, feet pointing downhill, wait a ten count, holler and then let fly, hoping not to stack up if someone catches a bootheel.
“You got to be shittin me,” says Hod.
Whitey smiles and sits down on the blade of the shovel, the handle pointing out between his knees. “You give me a nudge and go rest up. We can get us in another couple trips before it’s dark.”
He is at the bottom in the time it takes Hod to pull his mittens off.
At their pile Hod pulls out the blankets rolled at the top of his pack to make a nest and even sleeps a little, his legs twitching and complaining all the while, then wakes and gets up to stretch. Men huddle around a little fire, burning a smashed packing crate, smoking pipes and telling tales of gold. Hod lays his couple stale biscuits close to the flame till they are blistered on both sides. They are only yards away from the line of stampeders waiting for the final weigh-in and tariff, a red-jacketed Mountie with a 76 Winchester standing guard in front of a little white tent with the Union Jack flapping over it, his fellows weighing and thoroughly examining the outfits. Nobody is getting past them hauling stones.
“They count your damn socks,” grumbles a man by the fire. “Bunch of mother hens.”
“Man wants to go freeze to death, starve to death, whatever, whilst he’s searching for his bonanza, that oughta be his lookout,” says another.
“They just after that tariff,” says yet another as he roasts a potato on a stick. “Make you truck in all this gear and then tax whatever wasn’t boughten in Canada. Well hell, these local Indian boys say they got no idea what’s Canada and what’s district of Alaska, didn’t nobody pay it any mind before the strike at Thirtymile.”
“That’s the deal right there,” says a man with a moustache that drops down past his chin. “Wasn’t for them boys in red, how long you think the border would hold? Wherever the hell it is.”
The soldiers are noting it all, checking off on their lists the picks and shovels, the cooking pots and utensils, the tents and blankets and lamps and oil and flour and soda and bacon and beans and sets of long underwear, everything down to the shoelaces. If there are firearms they note those too, writing down the make and model, the caliber and amount of ammunition.
“St. Peter made this much fuss at the Golden Gate,” barks the sourdough whose goods they are poring over, “there wouldn’t be a saint in Heaven.”
It is nearly evening when Whitey reaches the summit again. He has Hod’s tent and promises to set it up while Hod makes the last climb.
“Be a place to get out of the weather when you get here.”
“And you’ll go back down?”
“I got mine all fixed at the bottom. I tell you, I feel sorry for these poor folks trying to go it alone.”
The shovel deal makes him nervous, so Hod chooses to run the chute on his back, folding his arms in the way Whitey shows him, like a dead man in a coffin. He has to wiggle a little to get going, then picks up speed, tucking his chin to his chest and not realizing he is screaming with exhilaration till he is halfway down and the air whipping tears into his eyes, rolling sideways a bit like he might fly out of the groove but then sliding to a long stop at the bottom and slammed by the whooping pilgrim behind him.
He loads his pack as fast as he can and shoves his way back into the line, but there is no speed to be gained on the Stairs, and after two hours of trudging the light dies. The climbers close up then, each with a hand resting on the small of the back of the man ahead, moving slower, digging in at every foothold. There are a few long halts, somebody fallen most likely but no telling, just minutes of bracing still against the night wind, and then creeping upward again.
There is a cot and a tin cup of lukewarm coffee waiting in the tent Whitey has set up at the top. It makes Hod near want to cry.
“You’re not slidin down in the dark?”
“Don’t see why in hell not,” says Whitey, tying the straps of his hat tight under his chin. “I aint gonna fall, am I?”
It is possible only to do three trips each a day, the men trading few words in passing, eager to use every bit of light. Hod hates the Stairs more with every grinding ascent, but as the days pass their pile of goods at the top grows larger than the one at the bottom, and he uses his rest time to learn what he can about what lies ahead.
“It’s an easy six miles down to Happy Camp on the Canadian side, then half of that to the edge of Lake Lindeman and the headwaters of the Yukon,” they say.
“There’s bad rapids between Lindeman and Lake Bennett,” say the few men who have been there and more who haven’t. “And then more on the river beyond. You got to make a boat and it better be a good one.”
“Aint a straight tree left standing for miles around that lake camp, what they say. Whole damn forest been felled and whipsawed into planks and gone floatin down the river.”
“You don’t beat the ice this season, you got to sit there till May when it breaks up again. Go through half your grub just waiting.”
“Been so many lost in them White Horse Rapids,” they say, “Mounties make you hire a pilot to run you past em.”
“Another goddam robbery.”
“You a good swimmer?”
“Hell, I’d drown in a bathtub.”
“Lucky you aint never been in one.”
Laughter then. They are chasing the same nuggets and know there are not nearly enough for all of them, no matter how big the country, but have been drawn together, at least for the moment, by hardship. Not too many spend the night on the summit, a pair of Mounties left to make sure nobody sneaks across, but even with most of the caches unattended Hod hasn’t witnessed any notable thievery. He and Whitey might be playing it too safe, he thinks, both of them could be hauling all day long and double their chances of getting down the river before the freeze.
“Been wondering the same,” says Whitey when he staggers up with the morning haul. “Met a fella says he’s waiting up here for his partner to come before he crosses over—lemme go find him and we’ll work something out, couple dollars to look after our tent, and I’ll be right on your tail. I’d sure like to see the last of this damn Chilkoot.”
Hod sees it is mostly Whitey’s outfit left when he gets to the bottom. He loads up with canned goods, rigging a pair of lanterns to hang over the back that rattle some when he moves but won’t fall off. His legs have hardened to the trail. He works the sums as he climbs, a new-bought alpenstock to help his balance—two men hauling over two hundred pounds, each making three trips a day staggered, so even if doubling up means only one more climb a day—but that’s counting on good weather, which keeps its own account book, and the Tlingits at the scales are muttering about an early freeze this year. He wonders how to ask Whitey to partner with him on the other side and how that will be, no telling what a man is like till you’ve gone down the long road with him. Whitey brings up whiskey with every load he hauls, and there is a sentry line of empty pint bottles outside each of the tents, but he is never passed out when Hod gets to the top, has never missed a turn on the Stairs. Hod has relied on other men in the mines, depended on his brother diggers for his life on occasion, but partnering, with no one the boss and no one the worker—
It will be half the treasure if they make a strike, of course, but also half the work. This north country is so big, so empty, the whole flocking mass of them, thousands of stampeders, only an aimless scattering of piss-ants in its white immensity. A man alone, tiny black dot stumbling over its treacherous surface, can disappear without a trace.
“Young fellas like you and me,” Whitey likes to say, “they aint no limit to what we could do in times like these. Got a steady man in the White House who understands there are fortunes to be made if the government will just step out of the way and let us at em. The world,” Whitey likes to say, “is our oyster.”
The tent at the summit is gone.
The tent is gone and the goods, all of them, the picks and shovels and lamp oil and bacon and beans and flour and the mackinaw suit and mukluks and the thirty-five-dollar China dog coat he bought in Seattle gone with it, only the half-dozen empty whiskey bottles marking the spot where his cache had been. None of the men around, busy with their own tortured passage, have noticed a thing.
“You mind your stake, brother, and I’ll mind mine,” they tell him.
His outfit is gone and no matter how quickly he slides to the bottom, he will find the rest of it gone too. He’s been taken. Nobody pays attention to his cursing, nobody watches as he circles back again and again to the spot where the tent had been set up, kicking the bottles across the snow. There is gold in the country beyond the Pass and one stampeder less in the race can only be good news. Hod wanders the summit for an hour, howling, the other adventurers turning away from him, embarrassed to be on the same mountain with such an idiot greenhorn, before he remembers he is still strapped to the final load. He slips his tumpline and lets it all thud to the snow, glass in one of the lanterns breaking, and seeks the counsel of the North West Mounted Police.