By Jessi Shakarian
Skaguay, Alaska, 1897
Pa and I walked through the dark Alaskan wilderness, armed with just a lantern, Grandpa’s old pickaxe, and our guns. The wind pelted snow at my face. All I could see was white and pitch black. Pa had me hold the lantern, walking close behind him. My arm trembled, the swaying light only revealing glimpses of trees covered in piles of ice and snow.
I wanted to hold my pistol high, but if the rumors were true, it wouldn’t do a thing against the ghosts: the Tommyknockers in the supposedly haunted mine. Besides, if the light wasn’t steady, neither was my shot. Annie Oakley would be able to do it, but I wasn’t there yet.
Pa and I were on a mission to find a secret treasure. I had overheard Pa and Owen’s whispers the other night. They wanted to beat the other prospectors to a large hunk of gold. Owen had it under good authority where it could be. No one in the Lower 45 knew about this cache, and it would be up to us, and Owen’s select team of miners, to find it. I don’t know how Owen got the lead the hidden gold was in this snowy mountain, but it was unusual because Pa said most gold up here was in the rivers and the creeks.
Shimmering gold in the darkest of places. From the day Grandpa Atkins started teaching me about sluicing gold in the river banks, I knew I had gold in my veins. But finding gold in the rocks was on a whole different level. And tonight, I was going to use Grandpa’s ax and find the lost treasure.
I yelped as I lost my footing on an icy spot. I held the lantern above my head and used my free hand to catch myself. The frozen ground seared my hand and my backside landed on the cold, hard ice. I cringed as I picked myself up and surveyed the damage under the still-intact flame. My already holey gloves had split at the seam, letting in the cold gusts. My skin poking out of the gloves was red as a branding iron, and the wind chill only made the pain worse. I dusted off my skirts, every swoop of my hand making my teeth gnash together. I kept my head down, hoping Pa wouldn’t bother to look back.
When I raised my eyes, he was already trudging back to me through the snow. His whole body was tense. We had too much riding on this gold. There were too many people around the Klondike now, claiming all the pieces worth anything. Pa had said we either find this cache of gold in the rocks or head back to San Francisco.
“What’s the matter with you, Nelle? I can’t see a damn thing with you swinging the light every which way.” He snatched the lantern from me. I tried to conceal my pain as the handle left my grasp. I’d begged Pa to let me come with him today. He hadn’t wanted to bring me, even though Owen had already said I might be of some use in the mine. But my usefulness might not matter now considering we were running behind on time.
Pa held the light steady as we approached a frozen brook meandering down the hill. The warm break from the snowstorms had been a nice treat, and even though the ice looked solid, there was no telling in actuality. Spring didn’t seem like much around here for March, but after my first winter in the arctic, I’d take what I could get.
I held my skirts and inched down the bank. Pa gave me his hand, and helped me down. His calloused grip made my freezing burn hurt more. I kept my head down, focusing on my footing so he couldn’t see me grimace. I stepped down on the ice, keeping my feet flat. My heart pounded. With any step I could fall into the ice and freeze.
I tried to distract myself with a story. Years ago, Grandpa and his brother, Clarence, had been mining together, and when they heard the knocks. Grandpa tried to get Clarence to leave, but his brother was greedy. The rocks came tumbling down and Clarence was buried alive. Grandpa couldn’t look back. Now that I was older, I could only imagine the last screams Grandpa must have heard.
“Didn’t the Knockers kill Grandpa’s brother?” I asked. The moment the words came out of my mouth, I wasn’t sure I actually wanted to know the answer. Neither distraction nor focus was helping this situation. I kept my grip tight on Pa’s hand.
“Your Grandpa told tall tales.”
Pa moved carefully but quickly, using the lantern to keep away from the thin ice. One foot in front of the other, I tried to keep up with his pace. When I moved up my leg, the ice cracked under my boot, and the cracks rippled like a tide. My whole body stiffened, and panic surged through me. I looked to Pa, who had already turned around at the sound. His eyes were wide, his body tense. I’d never seen him look so serious in all my life.
“Jump,” Pa said in his calmest voice.
I took a deep breath, and focused on the word jump. Pa pulled my arm, and even though my body felt just as frozen as the ice, I forced my body to move forward two big leaps. When I landed on the first leap, I heard the splash of the ice breaking into the water. The second leap was on thicker ice and it didn’t crack under my boot.
“Don’t stop,” said Pa. “The sooner we get on solid land, the better.”
He let go of my hand and used the wooden top of the pickaxe to tap on the ice. The ice was solid. I breathed a sigh of relief, thanking Grandpa for his ax. I kept my eyes on the ice as we made a few more steps to safety, the tapping to test the ice being the only safeguard from plunging through and freezing to death. When we got to the opposite bank, I was no longer scared for my life in the immediate. But the impending meeting with the Knockers had my heart still pounding against my chest. Now I couldn’t get the story about Grandpa and Clarence out of my head.
Pa and I walked in silence. I tried to shake out the fear from my shaking hands, but it only made my freezing fingers hurt even more. I breathed in the painfully cold air, searching my brain for something to calm me down. One of Grandpa’s lessons hit me hard.
Better to be cold and scared than warm and safe because you were afraid to do something exciting, Grandpa had told me the day Pa and I boarded the steamship for Seattle. Every time the gusts hit my face, I was certain I would freeze right there and die. I wished I’d known that was the last time I would see him. He died not too long after we left.
“Are you nervous?” Pa asked as he walked alongside me.
“Not really,” I lied.
I couldn’t stop shivering. The cold seemed even more piercing, but Pa looked like he had lived here his entire life, and this was all just normal for him.
“Well, if you do get nervous, just remember that I didn’t pick your name just because I thought it was nice.”
All I could do was nod. Nellie Cashman, the only woman Pa said he ever respected–besides my mother–because she was tough as nails when she had to be. In Nevada, she was the camp’s nurse and cook, and she even mined silver with them. Pa used to tell me stories about her when I was little. I wonder what Nellie thought about Tommyknockers. Was she scared of them? I bet she wasn’t scared of anything. Probably not scared of walking on thawing ice.
What if I wasn’t strong enough to be like Nellie? I would never be able to make something of myself. Like hell I’d settle quietly with a boy. I wanted to be like Nellie. If there was one thing I didn’t like, it was the thought of being cooped up at home all day.
So this was my big chance to be an Atkins girl through and through.
My stomach knotted as we moved down the hill. In the distance, I saw an opening in the mountainside, and a crowd of men surrounding it. Their lanterns glowed dimly in the darkness. These were the men who’d been steam thawing the ground and blasting the tunnels to get us into the mountain. Now they were also my audience. Fine by me. I was ready to show them all what I was made of.
The men fidgeted around Owen, who spotted us walking through the snow. In the dark, most of the men had lanterns, creating a dim glow amongst the crowd. The men were talking amongst themselves, double checking equipment. Owen looked smug, probably confident I was going to go running out of the mine like a little girl. I’d give him a run for his money. I walked straighter, ignoring my body pain. Calamity Jane wouldn’t let something so trivial as feeling her fingers bother her if she was out to prove something, I was sure of it.
“Can I carry Grandpa’s ax?” I asked Pa. I knew I was crossing a line, but I needed to make an impression.
“When you find a piece of gold tonight, you carry his ax,” said Pa. “You were there when Grandpa gave it to me, you know what he said.” I tried not to slump my shoulders. I could hear Grandpa’s voice in my head.
Buck up, girl! Now ain’t the time to act petulant!
At least Pa respected the code between miners. Even if Grandpa didn’t agree with the attempt to find the claim, he was only trying to help the family.
I should respect the code, too, if I wanted to make it.
“Curtis! You’re late!” Owen called out as he came to meet us carrying a lantern. I watched the other miners start to notice us, me in particular. After miners young and old made eye contact with me, some crossed themselves, and others kissed their palm and stretched their arms out to the sky. Grandpa wasn’t joking about miners being superstitious, but it still rattled me down to my core. All the more reason to find the lost gold, to prove them wrong.
I stared at the entrance to the mine behind them. The mountainside had been blown out with dynamite, and wooden scaffolding held up the front of the mine. I couldn’t see much because it wasn’t lit inside, but the darkness looked intimidating and inviting, all the same. The long, sharp icicles covering the rocks around the mouth of the entrance looked like rivers frozen in time.
I didn’t feel the pressure to get this right more than I did while staring into the mouth of the mine. But Grandpa didn’t teach me how to find gold so I could slave over a house all day.
“She’s going to ruin our chances at finding the gold!” complained one of the miners, who looked to be a little older than me.
“She must be delivering food to the Tommyknockers so we find the gold,” an older man assured him. “First-timer mistake, kid, but why Owen got a girl is beyond me. He must have a reason.”
I swallowed hard, peering into the darkened mine. I hoped he was right.
Growing up in San Francisco, I used to love listening to Grandpa’s stories of his time in the gold mines as a ’49er. Hearing the knocks on the mine walls from the things that live in them was a sign of impending death, or it could be a saving grace. Grandpa always said you had to make the decision quick and hope for the best. A miner never knew which it was until it was too late. Like Clarence, I didn’t want to think about what I might need to do if I heard the knocking.
No one was really sure what the Knockers looked like, but when I was younger, I imagined them to be gold-hungry creatures with pointed teeth and claws to pull out the gold. Grandpa said they didn’t look like that, but my image of them never changed. He never had an answer when I asked him how he could know if no one knew what they look like. And that made my imagination run wild out here.
“Sorry, it was a bit of a trek over from the homestead. We had to cross the brook because of all the snow,” said Pa. The two men shook hands. Owen’s face was like stone, but he pumped his arm harder, like contained anger for our late arrival.
“Glad to see you brought the girl. She’s just the thing we need to appease the Tommyknockers so we can find the gold.” Owen shot his arm out towards the mine.
The girl?! I opened my mouth to talk back but Pa jabbed my arm and shot me a look. Don’t piss off Owen, Pa’s look told me. I shot him a look back, kicking my foot in the snow.
“Let’s get this over with,” Pa grumbled. “I’ll go in with her.”
“That’s beneath you. She needs to earn her keep,” Owen said. “Those men have been working hard every night to get this mine ready. We need to do this right. There’s only one chance. Everyone was here on time except you.” Something in his eyes looked hungry for that gold, but also for power.
Pa was quiet for a moment before he looked at me. I looked around at the men around men. Men waiting for me.
“He’s right.” Pa nodded.
If you ever come into contact with the Tommyknockers, don’t be cocky. They can change your path at any time. Trust your instincts.
I tried to find comfort in Grandpa’s words, but all I could think about were big, red-eyed, clawed creatures that burrowed themselves deep into the mine, watching over the lost treasure. Did they knock with their pointed claws? Enjoy watching humans crumble under the weight of the rocks to keep the gold?
My stomach rumbled, and I wanted to retch. I took a deep breath, trying to ignore the fear. Nellie Cashman prospected gold and lived. She probably still mined somewhere!
“So what do you want with me?” I spoke before I could lose my nerve.
“You need to take this food into the mine, and give it to the Knockers. Once you give us the all clear, then we’ll start searching for the gold.” Owen reached into his jacket pocket and handed me a bundle wrapped in twine and a box of matches.
The weight of the thing felt heavy in my frozen hands.
“I thought you didn’t believe in Knockers, Owen,” Pa furrowed his brow. “You said she could help, but I wasn’t expecting this.”
“I can do that.” My voice was uneven, nervous, and scared all at once. “After, I can help mine, right?”
Owen didn’t even bother answering me. He moved in closer to Pa. “Look, if the rumors are true and it’s a five foot tall hunk, the men will help us break it down. So your girl will do drop off the food, and we can get on with claiming that gold. It’s our last chance before it’s time to move north.”
I could already imagine the headline with our names in it. Five feet tall? That was almost as tall as me! I tried to imagine how I’d lean against the gold hunk in a picture of me on the cover of the paper. I had to find the treasure. This would be the best way to prove myself worthy of the Atkins name and be as adventurous as Nellie Cashman.
“I can help look for the gold after I drop this off,” I volunteered.
“Well . . .” Owen started, but Pa interrupted him.
“I’ll keep her away from the others.”
Owen grimaced. “If you insist.”
I stared at Pa in amazement. He had stuck up for me!
The Atkins ax was so close to being in my grasp. I took a step forward in the snow towards the mine, but Pa grabbed my shoulder.
“Give me your gun. I don’t need you firing in the dark. You’ll end up killing yourself.”
Despite the icy wind hitting my cheeks, the embarrassment burned. Pa was right. Bullets would only ricochet off the wall. I knew how to find my way out of a dark mine, if I needed to. I took my gun out of its holster and handed it over.
I pushed on through the snow.
I pulled out the matchbox and lit the first lantern on the rocks just inside the wide entrance. I had to stand on a pile of snow to reach the high lantern, avoiding the killer icicles that looked like they’d pierce right through me if I moved my arm the wrong way. I shook out the match away from the icicles. I walked onwards through the mine, and darkness set in quickly. So much for any extra light to guide my way. I walked along the middle of the mine, keeping my eyes focused on my shoes. Something shiny caught my attention out of the corner of my eye. I looked up to see glimmers of gold nuggets lining the walls. Nothing substantial to yank out, but I darted to the edge, brushing my fingertips against the rock.
With every rocky step I took, the cracks and sounds of the mine made me wonder if a Knocker was watching me. I lit the second lantern and moved a little quicker. In the ceiling, it sounded like something was moving around. I hoped gophers and other underground creatures live up here. Maybe the red-eyed Knockers kill them with their terrifying claws.
The dim light didn’t do anything to ease my imagination. Was that their knocks? I focused on the axe, not the beady red eyes and pointed claws I couldn’t stop imagining.
Drop off this food for Owen, get Grandpa’s ax. With the ax, I could find the secret cache of gold. From there, newspaper headlines.
I had to stand on my tiptoes to reach each lantern, but with every new flame lit, the closer I got to the gold. I went back to the center of the tracks, muttering the same thing to myself: Knockers ain’t big and scary. Even if Grandpa’s stories weren’t exactly true, believing his version of the story was better. After all his brother had died, but Grandpa had survived.
The tunnel split into two. Each path seemed equally dark without the proper lighting, but Owen didn’t say anything about which way to take. Did it matter where I dropped the food? Owen didn’t seem to care, but I owed it to the miners, and Grandpa, to try my best. I didn’t want to end up dead because I listened to Pa. Grandpa always said that when the river forked, follow the nicest looking way.
I could always go back and pick the other tunnel, I reasoned with myself, but I wondered how much patience the miners outside had. Or how long this was supposed to take. I started with the tunnel on the left continuing through the mine, lighting lanterns to see. How would I know what the right place was?
Listen to the Knockers. They’ll tell you everything you need to know.
The answer was plain as day from Grandpa.
After lighting the first two lanterns, tiny nuggets of gold shone in the light, almost taunting me. Take me with you, the gold seemed to say. I reached into my jacket pocket only to remember that I’d left my pocket knife at home. Just drop off the food for Owen and get out. Get the ax, get the gold.
I shrieked as something ran over my foot, kicking my boot into the air. The shadowy rat tail went with my boot. I gathered myself and walked along the middle of the tracks.
The sound jolted through my body like a current. I looked around the dim mine. All I could see were a few rocks crumbling to the ground.
“I’m bringing you a present,” I said quietly, but my voice echoed. “I just want to find gold, too. I’m not doing anything wrong. I know you don’t like miner, but this is our last chance to find the gold–”
I nearly jumped to the ceiling. I reached for my holster, only to remember Pa had my gun. I hoped Owen’s package was enough to appease the Knockers so they’d let us find the gold.
“Here’s something so we can find the missing treasure,” I said as I took out the package and put it down on the dirt. “I come from a whole family of –”
I tripped over my feet as I skidded back, my arm swinging. I planted my feet down and my body wavered. The moment I kept my body steady, I bolted back for Pa and Owen; my legs wobbled and my heart pounded. The knocks reverberated through my bones. My knees buckled at the thought of red eyes popping out of the rock. I searched my brain for Grandpa’s help, but came out with nothing. I cursed my inability to be prepared, but against my better judgment, I stopped running.
I looked around. Nothing but dim light, and a few rocks tumbled down from the wall. I took a deep breath and walked to the entrance of the mine. My eyes adjusted to the bright moon in the sky, and with the white snow reflecting, there was no need for lamps out here.
“All done,” I tried to say with some swagger in my walk.
Owen and Pa were in front of the miners. I curled my lips and spit into the snow. Regret hit me hard. I must have been close to the gold, but it was easier to run. I felt like a little girl walking around in Pa’s shoes, pretending to be grown up. I was far from being Nellie Cashman. The Knockers were definitely real, and I sure didn’t have Grandpa’s courage. I’d just let them chase me away from that treasure.
“So are the Knockers happy?” the younger miner I overheard earlier asked.
Everyone’s eyes were on me. I just wanted to take Grandpa’s ax and be left alone.
“I think so.”
Owen interjected before I had a chance to tell them anything that happened. “Well, let’s get this show started.”
Owen and the other miners pushed passed me, streaming into the mine. I looked around for Pa. He nodded, a little smile curled in the corner of his mouth. My stomach fluttered in excitement, but the knocks still bounced around in my head.
I wanted to take Pa’s hand, hide behind him safely. I couldn’t shake the fear that I had gone too far, that I had angered the Knockers, even though I followed Grandpa’s advice. I walked with him back inside. I’m cold and scared, Grandpa, but I’m not seeing how this is better than being home. I took a deep breath as I entered the mouth of the mine again. I could only hope that the amount of people in the mine might keep the Knockers away. Maybe it would be easier this time to find gold, working with Pa, and the miners. It was the last shred of hope I had left.
Most of the miners were quiet, but the few instructions Owen barked, or short conversations between men echoed off the mine’s walls. As we walked on, I saw men swinging their pickaxes, picking out the glimmers I had spotted. Owen walked through the mine, nodding in approval. Any flake could reveal the home of the lost gold. More could be revealed behind the wall. Clink, clink, clink. It was almost rhythmic, like a song. Everyone in here was part of a well-oiled machine. And I was a part of that machine too. Still, were the Knockers watching us?
I walked with Pa to the fork in the mine. He didn’t even wait a beat to head down the dark path that I hadn’t. The lit tunnel was already filled with people.
“No, that way is the gold,” I pointed to the populated area. “I saw lots of it before the Knockers spooked me out.”
Pa only shook his head. “We have something more important to do, first.”
We kept walking until he reached the first lantern. Was I finally going to wield the ax? Find the secret gold? I took out the matchbox and lit it. We walked in silence to light a second one. I blew out the match and threw it on the floor.
“Here,” he said quietly as he handed me the ax. “Grandpa would have wanted to make this special. We don’t need an audience. You’ve earned it.”
My eyes widened and my mouth dropped as I took the handle. The wood was rough against my palms, but every moment I held the axe in my hands, the more the world felt right. My arms wobbled a little, body slumped over, the ax was heavier than I expected. Grandpa’s ax was made like it came from a different time, heavier wood, worn down metal even though it had been sharpened.
I swung the ax, trying not to overextend myself like Pa had taught me with a regular ax. Clank! The pointed side hit the rock, and pebbles shot out of the wall. I couldn’t stop smiling, readier than ever to go find the treasure.
I froze. Rocks crumbled from the walls, breaking down as they reached the floor. I looked at Pa, his face tense. He heard it, too. We waited a moment, the wall didn’t collapse. In my gut, it felt like a warning. Maybe we were too close to the treasure, or maybe it was my warning to get out.
“That’s the Knockers, Pa, they’re real,” I whispered.
Pa looked around at the tunnel. Was it going to collapse? Or was it the Knockers just playing tricks on us? I took a deep breath and let the sounds of the miners shift my focus back to the task.
“It’s going to be fine, keep digging. I’m not going to let some superstition get me down.”
I looked down at the ax. “What if I strike the wall again, and the whole thing comes toppling down?”
“Trust me, we’ll be fine. Find some gold, girl.” His attempt to calm me down didn’t help. His smile was tight. We were too out of bounds, but I didn’t want to ruin the moment.
I picked up the ax and swung again into the rock.
THUD, THUD, THUD.
Bigger rocks tumbled, and the clanking of the miners in the next tunnel had come to a halt. Now that was a warning if I ever heard one before.
“Why don’t we go to the other tunnel,” said Pa, taking the ax from me.. He didn’t let me know if he was concerned, only leading the way to the other, more populated tunnel. If Pa was spooked, this must be bad.
The mood had shifted from excited and chatty to deadly quiet in the other tunnel. Everyone had heard the sound too, and as we walked on, miners shot me death glares. Looks that said you did this. I heard comments that I was bad luck. I kept my head down, unable to look anyone in the eye. I believed them. This was my fault.
“I found your delivery spot,” someone said.
I looked up to see Owen with the food in one hand, his other hand was clutched tight. His smile was tight, his face dark in the dim light. He looked at Pa. “Just goes to show you that women aren’t meant to mine. All we can do is hope that the Knockers will be kind enough to let us find the real treasure,” he held a nugget in his fingers. Must have been from the rubble. And he’d said “us,” as in not me. Anger bubbled up alongside regret. I couldn’t tell which feeling was worse.
“These little pieces are a nice consolation,” he continued. “But not what I’m after.” He raised his eyebrows and nodded his head towards the miners around him.
I looked over at them, catching their eyes. I tried to act like I was courageous, holding my shaking hands. They were listening, watching me, just like I knew the Knockers were. Considering the warning the Knockers sent in the other tunnel, I must have been really close.
Owen turned back to Pa. “Why don’t you just let your girl collect the nuggets in a cart so the men can do their job? Curtis, I need you out there. Only a few of these idiots have ever mined out west like you.”
Was Owen just putting on this act for the miners? I looked to Pa for answers. He looked at me with regret. I slumped my shoulders. It didn’t matter if I was close. I wanted the ax and the gold. Getting just one wasn’t enough.
“You’ll find a cart over there.” Owen waved his hand as he turned on his heel.
Owen was damn good at getting people to fall in line by making them feel awful about themselves. It made him look he was the only one who could do the job. Maybe that’s why these miners were blindly following him.
But what else could I do? I sighed and walked past the men, dragging my feet. The younger guy I had seen around today was the only person who wasn’t making offhand comments about me. He gave me a sympathetic smile. At least I had two people who understood.
I took the matchbox out of my pocket and lit the next lantern from where I’d left off. No one else had ventured this far. In the shadows, I spotted the cart with two other lanterns in the way.
I walked towards the silence, striking the match along the box, but a gust of wind put out the flame. There weren’t any openings in the mine, so where could the breeze come from? My hand shook. The match dropped to the floor. I put it out with my foot and lit another. Cupping it with three fingers, I stuck the match into the lantern. The flame flickered, but it didn’t go out.
I walked quickly to the next lantern, striking the match and cupping the flame to get it lit. At least I got to touch gold as I put it into the cart.
I closed the lantern and shuffled to the cart. It was at the end of the line. The tunnel hadn’t been blasted out any further from there. I yanked the handle, the cart wheels moving backwards.
I looked away from the wall to watch my steps as I pulled the cart when something shiny caught my eye. I stopped and looked back at it. Gold stuck out of the earth, a pile of rocks below it, like someone had slammed the cart so hard it loosened out the rocks. On purpose though? I looked behind me. The men were all too busy at their own spots, ogling their flakes and nuggets, cheering that they must be on the right path for the bigger gold. Owen was nowhere in sight, probably trying to get them in line and focused. If he knew what I was looking at, I’d be in his clutches and probably far away from here. Letting men do their job.
I pushed the cart against the wall and ran back to the nearest miner, looking for the closest tool I could find. A miner was too focused on chipping away the wall. Perfect. I tiptoed closer, carefully picking up this shovel. I walked backwards a few steps to make sure he didn’t notice. The man didn’t look up. I made a run for my spot before anyone else spotted me.
I chipped away at the rocks, and the gold started looking bigger. I chipped at the rock faster, revealing more and more of the gold shining in the light of my lantern. My veins buzzed with excitement. This was the start of my mining life. I swung the shovel again, this time harder, deeper into the rock. Nothing shone, but the movements felt right. This was what I was meant to do with my family’s legacy. Was this the secret cache of gold? It didn’t really matter now. I’d finally found my claim.
Jessi Shakarian was born in Los Angeles, but got her first taste for colder weather when she got her B.A. in American Studies from UC Santa Cruz. She currently lives in snowy Vermont where she is a Publishing Coordinator for Pen and Muse Press. “The Claim” is her first publication. She is currently working on a novel. You can find her on twitter @listentomuses.