A good grain is a cracked grain.
If the grain is not cracked, we benefit not much.

April 6, 2002 - Haven

        Canine columns of ribbed teeth lined the jaw to the monster’s salivating mouth where we hid within a cavity. Any minute, we would be chewed, swallowed, digested and—
        "Stop your pacing." Romal yanked me into the seat beside him. "And harness your reckless imagination before it bests you. This is a pleasant room within the Parity Halls, not a rotted cranny within a monster’s tooth."
        I slouched low, boneless and sinking.
        Romal jostled me upright. "Zia, how you present yourself is a choice. Will you present yourself as a slab of skioses melting over a chair? Or will you present yourself as a gracious Yin Soul brimming with purpose?"
        "Is this a test?"
        Romal frowned. "Attempted humor?" He leaned in, separating our noses with a scolding finger. "The ArchGuide has a record of your every thought, whether spoken or sparked, and of your every deed, whether taken or forsaken. He will compare your skewed decisions of a hundred years ago to the Soul you choose to present today." He rested back, eyes closed. "Little chance of a favorable comparison if you present yourself as a clown."
        I tried to sit still, but my heel began thumping. "Hey, Romal, can I ask a question?" He didn’t answer, so I tapped him, "hey, hey, hey," until one of his eyes reopened. "Can I ask one lousy question?"
        "One? Unlikely, but I’ll applaud the effort."
        "How come—If other—When I—" Dozens of questions bombarded my head, each question screaming, pick me, pick me. But no amount of conjunc-tions could join those questions into one. An aimless stare fell to my lap.
        Romal nudged me. "Out with it. I’d rather hear your torturous chatter than untangle your tortuous thoughts."
        "How come I’m the only Soul who doesn’t know stuff?"
        Romal shifted uneasily.
        I bounded to my feet. "You were supposed to say, ‘oh, no, Zia, that’s all in your head.’ But it’s not, is it? Everybody does know stuff. How? How did they learn it? Did I miss a meeting? A manual?"
        "No, no," Romal said, though his eyes dodged mine, and he fidgeted like a doctor tasked to deliver terminal news.
        "I knew it." I sank to my chair. "I have a celestial disease. I just knew it."
        "You know nothing."
        "You’re right." My head limbered sideways to rest on Romal. "Ignorance is part of the disease."
        "Sit up." Romal scraped me off his shoulder. "Other than an incurable imagination, you have no illness."
        "Oh. But you said—"
        "Whatever you think I said, I said nothing of the sort."
        "Oh. Then how come—"
        "For ten minutes, a mere ten minutes, please sit still and be quiet."
        Having been Romal’s Charge for centuries, I knew his two moods, cranky and very cranky. To return him to just cranky, I twisted an imaginary key on my lips. After waiting ten minutes, I said, "How come—"
        "Zia, I asked for ten minutes, not 30 seconds."
        "I gave you ten minutes, ten Earth minutes." My rationale brought back Romal’s pinched face of very cranky. "Fine," I told him. Leaning back, I kept quiet for 11 minutes, the extra minute serving as an apology. "Romal, now will you tell me?"
        "I have nothing to tell. Souls have no manual, and you have no malady."
        "Then how do billions of Souls, throughout all eleven Orders, automat-ically know stuff? They didn’t learn it as Players; their knowledge of dos and don’ts predates the first Determinant on Earth. I need the answer, Romal. I bet it will explain my small size and mismatched lights."
        "Mismatched? Ridiculous. Your colors are interesting."
        I clutched a hank of the purple lights spinning down from my head. "This is supposed to mimic hair, wavy and shiny, not electrocuted." I stretched the kinks flat across my green shoulder. "See that? Purple and green clash. They don’t belong on the same Energy."
        "Nonsense. They’re the colors of a petunia."
        “They’re the colors of a chopped up toad.”
        “Really, Zia, now isn’t the time—”
        “I knew it.” My palms flew up. “It’s never the time. Just forget it.” My feet shuffled to the dimensional window. Earth had reached its farthest point in orbit and appeared smaller than a tennis ball. For a while, I reflected on my eleven lives—although Guides count twelve, but avoid that subject, too—until, one by one, each memory lowered my chin. “Crap.”
        Immediately, Romal stood at my side, his arm stretching across my back to give a comforting squeeze. His other arm swept across the window to shift the view. The forefront dimension, now Divisional, spotlighted the Awakening and Descending Fields. While Romal gazed out the window, a rolling ahhh leaked from his lips. “Extraordinary, don’t you think?”
        Extraordinary? I craned toward the window, but saw what I always saw—fleeting lights from Awakening Parties crossing in and out of Transitional fields, cords popping up and disappearing, brigades of Souls arriving and descending, their lights flashing, blinking and merging. “Looks like an LA freeway times ten. Well, maybe five.”
        “Long ago, before time measured, that region cradled all of your kind, all ten billion bundles of Energy, each with a Ribbon of Life, but none with a spark to—”
        “To self-awaken. I know the story. Everything and everybody existed within the Nucleus Power. Half the Nucleus wanted to spark our awareness; the other half wanted us catatonic. Then BOOM, or as the Players tell it, BANG! But boom or bang, the Power split into Pure Positive and Pure Negative—One and beelzeButt.”
        “Jeez, I know. Even I know about the Great War. It resulted in a bunch of Hands-Off rules for Guides and a list of Do-Not-Interfere laws for us.”
        “All to safeguard your Free Will. To appreciate that, you must learn the difference between innascible, which you are, and invincible, which you are not. Regardless, after the Great War, the Council of Genesis awakened the Souls, secured them into Orders, and paired them with Guides.”
        “Wait. What Council? Alpha told me that One selected the Orders.”
        “Alpha told you no such thing. He said One selected your Order. You then assumed One selected every Soul’s Order; am I correct?”
        He was, but I shrugged instead of nodding, tired of always being wrong.
        Romal continued, “I served on the Council of Genesis, a daunting task to say the least. We labored through the expanse of Energies while centuries
blurred into lonely millenniums. Quite often, our work felt eternal, as though we might never come to the last Soul.”
        “And did you?”
        Romal winced. “Of course we did! December 1631, the recorded date on Earth and a bittersweet moment for the Council. In earlier times, Souls shared their fascinating stories about their adventures in play. And the Council listened, enraptured, thrilling vicariously with their successes and paining deeply with their defeats. But by 1631, much had changed, sadly changed for the Council. Souls, no longer neophytes, were rather busy progressing to the side of their choice—be it One or be it Niine. Life after life, Energy to Player, Player to Energy, Souls had little time for chitchat. Between their lives, a Soul might manage a cordial wave to the Council.” His fingers wiggled pathetically at the window. “Rarely more.”
        “Okay, I get it. Thank you? Sorry? Uhm, call home more often?”
        Romal snorted.
        “Fine,” I said, “I don’t get it.”
       “The hell you say.” Romal brushed aside my purple lights that supposedly mimicked hair. His eyes met mine. “In 1631, we finally approached the last Energy, a small whirl of Yin, and we sparked her Awakening. Her atoms unfurled and reassembled without issue. Then we waited.”
        “Waited for what?”
        “Matter, but not another particle belonged to the Soul. Though half the size of any other, she was complete—a sea green Yin topped in maroon lights, or as you see it, purple.”
        “Whoa, you mean—” I thumbed my chest.
        “Yes, yes, you were the last grain of Energy to awaken. Unfortunately, the millenniums had drained the Council’s patience, and we bickered over securing your Order. One member, noting your strong voice, proposed the Warriors. Another member suggested the Counters, an Order predisposed to oddities. Then a wise and distinguished member offered the Order of Teachers, but his idea was met with dissent. Rude dissent I might add.”
        “I could have been a Teacher?”
        Romal shuddered. “No, no, no. Certainly not. Desperation spawns bad ideas. Unthinkable.” He went back to his chair and sat. “Fortunately, One solved the matter by sending a message through our dear friend Alpha. ‘Eleventh Order,’ Alpha told us, ‘Zia, Order of Agitators.’ Naturally, no Council member had suggested the Order, but now—”
        “Why?” My question startled Romal. “Sorry for interrupting, but why?”
        “What do you mean, why? Why not another obstinate, caustic recluse? Is that your question?”
        I nodded.
       Romal pinched the bridge of his nose, his lips nibbling out mumbles, “Yes, yes, I set myself up for that one. Yes, indeed.” After a while, his hand came down. “Zia, picture ten billion Energies. If that gives you trouble, think of ten billion grains of sand. Upon waking, an Energy emanated love, wonderment, and tranquility. All ten billion woke in peace...all except you.”
        “Except me?” I glided to Romal. “What does that mean? I’m peaceful. Damn peaceful.”
        “Yes, yes, I’m certain you think so. But you woke with aggression, flares of burgundy we had never seen and shrieks of antimatter we had never heard. We harnessed the vibrations as quickly as possible, but unfortunately, we missed a few. Mount Vesuvius erupted in an unscheduled explosion.”
        My mouth opened but no words came out.
        With two fingers, Romal nudged it closed. “The Council began to list each Agitator’s placement to find and consider those Guides having the fewest. Nothing personal, you understand, just a fair distribution of a difficult Order. But while we tallied, Alpha’s brilliant orange eyes dimmed with concern. Well, I couldn’t have that. Although I’m merely an Interim Guide, I declared myself your Guide. Alpha, in a burst of gratitude, twitched in a moment less dour.” Romal smiled. “And there you have it.”
        “I have it? What do I have?” I sat with a thud. “I’m a freak?”
        “No such beast, not with the attachment you give it. Life itself refuses boundaries, always has, always will, and it throws us an anomaly to remind us of such. Think of the hummingbird, capable of backward flight.”
        “I’m backwards?”
        “Hmm, but not my point. Consider the misunderstood platypus, classed as a mammal, yet it lays eggs.”
        “Isn’t it poisonous?”
        “Oh, that’s right. So it is.”
        “For chrissake, Romal, is this your idea of a pep talk? Toasting drunks lift more spirits.”
        Romal’s eyes thinned. “Fair warning, Zia, when you address the ArchGuide, you had better drop the sarcasm and watch the language. Refrain from any act or comment that you would later defend as humor. No antics.”
        “Antics? That was the Zia of ages ago.”
        “No, that was the Zia of moments ago on the Parity Hall steps. Did you think Novella would find your waders amusing?”
        “I was kidding around.”
        “Shouting, ‘Bring on the floods,’ wretchedly distasteful.”
        “It was a joke.”
        “It was an insult. Novella takes great pride in having served as Noah.”
        “He built one lousy ark. Big deal. It’s not as though the entire world actually flooded. Besides, what has he done since? Nothing. So I tease him. I always tease him. And Novella always fashions a stick and—”
        “A staff.”
        “A stick, a staff, the Holy freakin’ Grail. Whatever it is, he wags it at me. Except, come to think of it, he didn’t this time. Did you notice that? This time, he acted weird. He smiled. He never smiled at me before. And he reached out like he was going to pat my head. Did you see that?”
        “I saw you duck, tuck, and roll.”
        The more I thought about Novella, the more I recalled receiving smiles from other Souls, too. Smiles I had never received before. “Hey, how come everyone is acting weird toward me?”
        “Oh look,” Romal said, “the door is opening.”
        When I turned and looked, the door was still shut. “No, it’s not—”
        Then it opened.
        Romal stood. “Come along. It’s impolite to keep an ArchGuide waiting.”
        When I got up, Romal circled me twice to inspect. Then his hands folded over mine. “Zia, we’ve had our differences, scores of bruises and apologies. At times, you thought ill of me; at times, I thought I had failed you. Though Souls design themselves from an eternity of choices—skills to select or toss, elements to polish or purge—Guides serve one purpose.” He released my hands, stepped back, and bowed. “I hope I have served you well.”
        An inky-blue lump caught in my throat; Romal had never failed me. Never. He’s cranky, sure, but he’s also patient, loving, and crazy smart. I bet he was Noah Webster’s Guide because he uses words that the Players’ dictionaries have long ago deleted or have yet to include, innascible and skios to name two.
        For centuries, I had given him hell, but I had never known, until that moment, that I had given him heartache, too. I should have known. Had I been a better Soul, more deserving of Romal, I would have known.
        I bounded forward, knocking him backward, my arms roping his neck. “You’re the best, Romal. You never failed me. You served me great. Nobody nowhere yammers better than you. Nobody. Between my lives, I’ll give you better than a wave. I promise. In fact, I’ll make sure every Soul gives you better than a lousy wave.”
        “No, no, quite unnecessary.” Between his returned squeezes, he tried to pry free. “Come now, Zia, no need for this. A smidgeon of decorum, please.”
        I let go.
        He smoothed aside my purple kinks, poked back my shoulders, and bumped up my chin. “Remember, Zia, confine the story to the relevant facts. Don’t elaborate. And for the love of One, do not curse and do not lie.”
        “Lie? Me? I don’t where you get your informa—”
        “DO NOT LIE!” He swiveled me toward the door. “Let’s go.”
        When we entered, I thought we had the wrong room. Where was the marble? The chandeliers? The sculptures? It wasn’t even a room. Rooms have walls and ceilings. This place did not.
        From way up high, a stream of light flowed down and lit a small wooden table where a thin, slate-gray ArchGuide sat opposite two empty chairs. That’s it. No color, no sound, no nothing. Just a blank canvas inviting my imagination...and the dimness darkened into oily shadows, and the oily shadows twisted into ominous threats. My eyes widened; my legs locked.
        Romal leaned into my ear. “Control it, Zia. It’s a choice. Choose to control your imagination.”
        “I will. I will.” But as we glided to our seats, I bunched into Romal, nearly tripping him.
        When Romal bowed, I did, too, and when he sat, I did the same.
        The ArchGuide watched us, but he didn’t say a word. I stared into the round black pits of his eyes.
        When Romal elbowed me, I started talking. “Hello, Sir. I’m Zia, Order of Agitators. With the hope that you’ll grant my request, I’m here to tell you what happened that spring. And I will, but first—” I crossed my fingers, preparing to rush my words, hoping that a quick offense was a tiny offense.
“Can I say one thing? Just one thing? I need to say one thing first. Please?”
        Romal cupped his forehead and let out a disparaging, “Nooo.”
        “Sir, I just want you to realize that the season of consequence rippled for a hundred years. Not five. Not fifty. But a hundred years. Okay? Straight up, I take full responsibility. Yes, Sir. But I get it now, okay? Back then, I didn’t get
squat. Just compare my thoughts of 1898 to those of my last life. When you do, you’ll know that what I’m telling you is true. Okay? Okay?”
        The ArchGuide glanced at Romal.
        “Wait,” I said, “I’m not telling you how to do your job. Hell no. I mean, no, Sir. But the comparison is important. Damn import—I mean, darn important. But you probably know that, right? Right? Uhm, maybe you could nod? Maybe blink? Okay, maybe not. I’m a little nervous. Romal told me to look at you when I’m talking, but that’s hard. Oh, jeez, I don’t mean you’re hard to look at, like you’re ugly or something. Because you’re not. Not ugly, I mean. Not that I’m checking out your looks. I don’t care how you look. I mean, I care, but—”
        Romal rapped the table. “Zia, the event in Alaska, please.”
        “Yeah, okay. That’s when I saved my brother’s life. I mean—”

        Instantly, the ArchGuide’s hand came up—the signal for silence—and he turned to Romal for what I knew was a thought-to-thought chat.
        I picked my fingers.
        A moment later, Romal stood, bowed to the ArchGuide, and tugged up on my elbow. “Come along, Zia. Time to go.”
        “Go? Go where? What about my request?”
        “Denied,” Romal said. “Come along.”
        “Huh?” It happened so fast, my head filled with a buzzing din, as if a thousand bees had made a hive of it. Though numb and confused, I collected myself and followed Romal.
        At the doorway, Romal paused. “It’s respectful to thank the ArchGuide.”
        “Thank him?”
        “For his time.”

        “His time?” I looked back at the pompously pious ArchGuide who hadn’t given me the chance to retract or explain my bad choice of words.
        Romal waited...and the ArchGuide seemed to be waiting, too. “Romal, did he tell you to remind me?”
        “Zia, it’s respectful whenever—”
        “He did!” Red sparks flared and fell from my forehead. Ignoring Romal’s calls to stop, I marched back to the ArchGuide. “You got some nerve. You want Romal to teach me respect? He ought to teach YOU! Maybe I messed up, but I’m nervous. I’m wired nervous, made worse by having to stare into your big, black bugeyes. That’s right, bugeyes. Now, that’s my excuse; what’s yours? Fifty times, I asked, ‘Right? Right?’ Would it have killed you to answer?  One peek into my Soul and you would have known I wasn’t being a smart-ass. But, hey, if you want to deny me, fine. You got the power. But first—” I thumped into the chair, my arms crossing. “Respectfully, Sir, I came to state my story, and that’s just what I’m going to do. If you raise your hand, I’ll shut up, but I won’t leave. I’ll sit here through eternity until your hand lowers. And if you pelt me with your white light, that’s fine, too. From wherever I land, I’ll drag my sorry Soul back to this chair. Get it? I’ve been walloped by better than you and for a whole lot less. Let me know when you’re ready to listen.”

        Ebony eyes doubled in size, but I didn’t look away. If he was scanning my thoughts, all he was hearing was, oh crap, I’m in deep, deep shit.
        I felt Romal’s presence to the side. Without a blink from the ArchGuide, I groped for Romal’s arm, found it, and gripped it.
        Loosing my fingers, Romal sat again. As he turned my chin toward his, my eyes strained at the corner to keep watch on the ArchGuide. “Zia, look at me,” Romal said. “Come now, turn your attention to me.”
        My focus volleyed a few times before it stayed on Romal.
        “That’s better,” Romal said. “Calm now?”
        I nodded.
        “Splendid,” he said. “You have another chance.”
        Up shot my triumphant fist.
        Just as quickly, Romal smacked it down...and clamped it. Before I could spit out an apology, Romal’s thumb grazed my forehead, and my eyes struggled to stay open. “Let them close,” Romal said, so I did. “Zia, listen carefully, very carefully. Somewhere within your Soul lies a fragment of wisdom. It’s undoubtedly small, a speck perhaps, but it does exist, and it’s staid, grave, earnest, and true. I want you to find that fragment and clutch it. Should you think it’s dissolving or slipping free of your grasp, or should you begin to doubt that you’ve grasped it at all, I want you to trust that you have it and to keep a tight hold. That sliver of wisdom will carry you through, from the first word of your story to your last utterance of truth. Do you understand?”
        I nodded.
        After a while, I heard a queer voice. It came out of me—I knew it was me—but it sounded nothing like me. It sounded frighteningly truthful.
* * * * * * * * * *
        In the summer of 1897, we heard the rumors. Everyone heard the rumors. They rose from the seaports in California and Oregon, and they spread like a virus, passing from lip to lip over clotheslines, through barbershops, and outside churches, infecting millions across the states.
        Before we could figure the truth of it, the rumors broke into worldwide headlines—Gold in the Klondike.
        Murdock smacked the newspaper against my chest. “Get packed, brother. We got a destiny in the arctic.”
        By destiny, I thought he meant we would strike gold in the Yukon and return to Utah as wealthy men. Destiny implies fortunes gained and dreams realized; otherwise, you’re supposed to call it fate. Had Murdock said, “...fate in the arctic,” I would have set a course for the equator. Fate is never good.
        We weren’t the only ones infected by a gold-fate destiny. Overnight, lines of buggies, horses, and wagons clogged the westbound trails and roads. Hoards of others amassed at train depots, burgeoning and toppling the railroad schedules. Fifty thousand men and women moved across the landscape like an unstoppable herd of buffalo migrating west—that’s how the press described it, calling the herd stampeders.
        When Murdock said we were joining the stampede, I told him, “We ain’t got train fare to Seattle. And if we managed that, how we gonna get from Seattle to Alaska? Swim?”
        He punched me, not because of the sarcasm—Murdock never understood sarcasm—but because he couldn’t swim a lick, and he figured I was poking fun of him. Had he been able to swim, he would have taken my sarcasm for serious and insisted we save money by swimming.
        As it was, he couldn’t swim, and we didn’t have money. But across town, our Taylor cousins, Matthew and Peter, had plenty of money, enough to pay for all of us...once Murdock convinced them to come along.
        We were in our twenties—Peter, just barely—and we shared the same grandfather, but that’s all the MacKenzies and the Taylors shared. Well, that and our feelings for Mirabelle, their mother, our aunt. She was a widow, tiny but sturdy, hardworking and God-fearing, and she was the kindest woman I had ever known. Matthew gave her love and respect, but Peter, the apple of her eye, gave her crap. She forgave him, but I didn’t. Had Mirabelle been my mother, I would have been a better man...and I wouldn’t have given her crap.

        Murdock averted eye contact with our aunt; she made him nervous. Her lips pursed at every word leaving Murdock’s mouth. “A man can never have
too much money,” Murdock said. “And seein’ that you’re family, it’s only right we let you share in the gold. Hell, ain’t no other reason for asking you along.”

        Matthew refused—his mother needed a son’s hand to help with the chores—but Peter leapt the stairs, two at a time, to start packing. He didn’t even notice the tears welling in his mother’s eyes. After she dabbed them dry, she hardened them on Murdock. “Go on and help Peter,” she told him. “You started the fuss, now make yourself useful.” She tried to push him, but Murdock had the girth of two men and the weight of three. Mirabelle’s hand fell against him like a feather falls against a brick. “Are ya deaf?” she said, her voice loud with insistence. “Go help your cousin pack up his gear.”
        Murdock lumbered toward the stairs. Matthew and I started to follow, but Mirabelle’s arm swung out to corral us in place.
        After Murdock disappeared into the loft, Mirabelle fixed her gray eyes on me. “I don’t much listen to gossip,” she said, “but I’ve heard troubling talk about your brother. Folks say he’s a thief and a liar. Some call him a shill for the devil.” She tugged my chin sideways and eyed the fleshless groove at the corner of my mouth and the long puckered scar that snaked to my cheekbone. I swallowed hard, praying she wouldn’t ask.
        And she didn’t ask...because she already knew. “He’s got a devil’s temper to boot.” She pulled my chin back to hers. “Gavin Dearg MacKenzie, I want the truth. Is Murdock sewn from one decent thread of my sainted sister, or is he cut from the sinful cloth of your father and his father before him?”
        If only I could turn back time...I answered with a shrug.
        A strange sadness washed over my aunt. “For shame,” she whispered. “A spoken lie is a forgivable sin, but an unspoken truth is a harbinger of evil. Can ya figure the reason, Gavin? Can ya?”
        I can now...about a hundred years too late.
        For Mirabelle’s peace of mind, “See that no harm comes to your brother,” Matthew packed, too, promising to watch over Peter.
        In a tavern near the Seattle Port, Murdock bumped into several incoming travelers. A commotion erupted when those travelers later discovered their money-clips missing. Murdock’s sleight of hand had escaped everyone’s notice—everyone except Peter.
        Jittering to tell, Peter saddled beside me at the bar and ordered a whiskey. When it came, Peter threw it to the back of his throat and then coughed and choked like the non-drinking kid he was. “Know what I saw?” he sputtered.
        “Don’t care,” I told him.
        Peter went on anyway. “Your brother is mighty slick. I never seen a faster hand. It just slipped in and out of those pockets without nobody feeling nothing. Hey, you suppose Murdock would teach me?”
        Murdock loathed Peter, but since I was bored and wanting entertainment, I told him, “Sure. Go on and ask,” and then I turned in my seat to watch.
        Peter strode to Murdock’s table. Seconds later, Murdock rose like a bull, his weight bending the tavern’s floor boards. “Get away from me.” His sweeping arm hit squarely across Peter’s chest.
        Gangly Peter bounced off a nearby table and landed on the floor.
        Red-faced and disheveled, he returned to the stool beside me. He stared at the counter, not talking, not drinking, and not jittering with excitement anymore. After a while, he muttered, “Don’t know why he got so mad. I ain’t gonna tell nobody nothing. Kin don’t turn against kin. Ain’t that right? Shoot, you know it better than anyone. You learned it the hard way.” When I looked at Peter, he ran a finger down his cheek. “Ain’t that how you got that scar?”
        My face heated, now wishing Murdock had thrown Peter through the barroom window.
        “Your daddy was teaching you a lesson, right?”
        My daddy had nothing to do with it, but I kept my mouth shut.
“To make you more like Murdock,” Peter said. “That’s what I figure, ‘cause Murdock is plenty smart and powerful strong.”

        Yep, smart and strong like a rhino, both getting their way by plowing through men. That’s what I should have said. Instead, I said nothing at all.
        “He don’t take guff from nobody.”
        Nobody gave him guff; Murdock was meaner than a snared wolverine.
        “I bet if I work hard and do what he tells me, he’ll—”
        CRAACK. My shotglass hit hard on the bar top. “He’ll what? Respect you? Peter, that ain’t gonna happen. Get that through your thick skull. He don’t like you. He ain’t never gonna like you. He thinks you’re a sissy-boy.”
        “But I ain’t.”

        “Don’t matter. You could bed a hundred whores, but it wouldn’t change Murdock’s mind none...if he has a mind.” I threw back the last of my drink, sleeved my mouth, and then flagged the bartender. “Another whiskey. And bring another for my cousin here, the goddam dullard.”
        Peter jumped up. “I ain’t no dullard, and I ain’t no sissy-boy.” He kicked the barstool aside to lean into me. “And I don’t need no whores to prove it. I got another way. You’ll see.” He marched out of the tavern.
        On March 9th, we boarded the steamship Farallon bound for Alaska.
        A few miles from port, Peter started that I-got-a-secret kind of jittering again. The minute Matthew and Murdock left for the deck, Peter locked the cabin door. Then he showed me what he bought in Seattle—a side-strap holstering a Colt 45. “Ain’t it a beauty?”
        It was! It was silver and gleaming and polished to a mirror shine. He said he bought it to stop looters from taking our gold. “I’ll give them a helluva surprise.” He kept drawing the gun, swinging it, aiming it, and holstering it. “When I protect our gold, I betcha Murdock will think better of me.”

        “Did you tell Matthew?” I asked only to rattle Peter, who was no less a fool than I was an opportunist. Obviously, Matthew knew nothing of the gun. A died-in-the-wool stalwart, Matthew hadn’t come for the gold. He had come because he had promised his mother he would babysit Peter. Had Matthew known about the gun, he would have been boxing Peter’s ears back to Utah.
        “Gavin, you ain’t gonna tell him, are you?”
        “That depends,” I said, reeling him in. “Can I shoot it?”
        Then, and every evening thereafter, Peter and I met at a secluded spot on deck and we fired at whales, dolphins, and everything else bobbing in the sea.
        Our fun ended seven days later when we stepped off the planks in Alaska and learned of a new law. Armed Canadian Mounties, tired of burying starved and frozen bodies, refused entry into the Yukon unless a man could prove a year’s worth of provisions. At best, our sacks weighed fifty pounds, a pittance to the four tons we needed. Falling in among the masses—the masses of the ill-prepared—we hiked the Chilkoot trail.
        Twelve miles later, we pitched our tents at Sheep Camp, a roughed-in town with two saloons, three log buildings, and one swarm of prospectors. Within days, Matthew, Peter, and I had jobs hauling cargo between Dyea and Sheep Camp. We trudged back and forth, back and forth, sixty miles of back and forth for each ton of supplies we advanced one mile on the trail.
        Our frozen bones ached, our Utah boots peeled, and our empty bellies growled in constant complaint. Cheechakos, that’s what the natives and sourdoughs called us. Cheechakos, meaning newcomer or tenderfoot—literally tenderfoot if you didn’t know about mukluks.
        While my cousins and I worked as packers, Murdock claimed to work Long Hill. “For a better wage,” he said jiggling a bag of coins twice the weight of ours.
        Those who worked Long Hill deserved double pay. Long Hill ascended north from Sheep Camp and ended at the Scales, the tent-town weighing supplies. Although Long Hill only stretched a few miles, the pass spiraled at a near vertical angle—up, over, and around giant blocks of granite—to reach a height of 1600 feet. Stampeders didn’t walk Long Hill; they climbed it. Sometimes crawled. Carcasses of stumbled mules littered the gulches.
        In truth, Murdock didn’t work Long Hill. To gain his money, he hid in a shallow vein above the main trail and ambushed returning prospectors.
        I told no one.
        By early spring, we had stockpiled the required supplies to cross over the border. One load after the next, we moved our packs to the Scales. Once weighed, we joined the single file line at the bottom of the Golden Stairs. That’s what they called the 1500 steps grooved into the mountain’s ice—The Golden Stairs. For accuracy, they should have called it, The Staircase To Hell.
        After a slow, arduous climb up the icy steps, we cached our packs at the summit, and then we prepared to descend to get the next load. Prepared meant steeling your nerves because the descent was worse than the climb. Stampeders slid down chutes that were shovel carved into the snow and ice. Except nobody slid. Everybody plummeted. Floop, floop, floop.
        Pitching, rolling, and bouncing, we ricocheted off the sides and plunged into the man ahead. Our legs flapping, our arms twisting, we tumbled, skidded, and flailed. Floop, floop, floop. We shot from the chutes like snow covered cannonballs, bloodied and bruised.
        Matthew estimated forty-two round trips to move our tonnage from the Scales to the summit. Murdock figured it different. “When we’ve cached enough up there for the two of us, we’re crossing into Canada.”
        A block of ice rocked in my head where a brain should have been; otherwise, I wouldn’t have asked, “What about Matthew and Peter?”
        Murdock’s fist took out my last canine tooth.
        On our 15th round-trip, Matthew remained at Sheep Camp to pack another load for the Scales. Murdock, Peter, and I climbed the Golden Stairs. Once more at the summit, we cached our supplies, and then Peter positioned at a chute, but only Peter. He noticed and scooted back, questioning Murdock.
        Murdock didn’t like questions, and he liked them even less coming from Peter.
        Their voices rose.
        I stepped aside. Frostbitten and chilled to the Soul, I listened without hearing, watched without seeing, and felt only the northern wind as it cut through my jacket and rattled my bones.
        Their shouts grew into blows. Peter fell and his arm struck a boulder. Clutching his elbow, Peter wailed, howled, and writhed, making a big fuss over an elbow, just a lousy elbow.
        “Gavin,” Murdock shouted, “let’s go.”
        The shout brought Peter staggering to his feet. His glove disappeared into his jacket and then reappeared brandishing the gun. “You ain’t going nowhere except down the chute.”
        After a stunned pause, Murdock looked my way, no doubt scrutinizing my reaction.
        My face showed surprise, candid surprise. Through the months of hauling, climbing, and freezing, I had forgotten about the Colt.
        Turning again to Peter, Murdock said, “Only a woman hides a gun.” He spat. “Women and sissy-boys.”
        Peter began trembling, which caused Murdock to grin. “A gun won’t make a man out of a sissy-boy.” He started toward Peter. “You better grow a spine real quick ‘cause I’m going to shove that gun up your sissy-boy ass.”
        Peter’s trembling became a violent shaking. A dark circle emerged on the front of his pants.
        Murdock roared with sardonic laughter. “Sissy-boy wet himself.”
        His cheeks flushed, his eyes swimming in unspilled tears, his mouth ratcheting with stutters, “I’m—I’m not—You—You better—I have—” Peter cocked the gun.
        I watched, disconnected and numb.
        My surreal detachment began when I shrugged to Aunt Mirabelle, but then it ended when I saw Peter’s finger quiver near the trigger.
        In a split-second of insight, I realized how my silence had paved the path to where we now stood.
        In the next split-second, I tried to reverse it; I lunged for the gun.
        In a Player’s instinct to keep control, Peter’s hand squeezed.
        The gun fired, pitching me into darkness.
        Insight had already fled; my last thought as Gavin centered on myself. Finally, warm toes.