Once Etta Mae got an idea in her head, there was no hope of her letting go of it. You might just as well try to take a fish away from a bear. With summer nearly out of the way, their provisions in, and a small sack of gold still to play with, Etta Mae decided they should make an investment and turn their home site into a proper spread. She developed a hankering to raise some buffalo, the way folk were doing it all around Delta Junction. Trapper Jim had some other ideas. For him, it was time to throw a little money around to the establishments of Fairbanks, insuring their continued welcome. While Etta dressed in her Sunday best; complete with a brand new fringed cowboy shirt and blue jeans, bringing her bargaining power with her to claims and deeds, essayer’s offices, and ranchers, Trapper Jim took the time to re-acquaint himself with the local taverns.
The way Trapper Jim told it afterward, he was saying a fitting parting to his carefree easy days of no responsibilities as he was about to become a proper business man with livestock, pens and a woman running the whole darned place. He mourned for his old life a bit, never having stepped into a future quite like the one Etta Mae was planning. He did his mourning at several establishments until they agreed he had paid enough homage and any more would be excessive loyalty and helped him along his way to another homage deserving place. In this manner, he finally ended up at Sally’s out by Road’s End.
Sally’s was the type of place men went to as the last brave step in a tour of tavern duties and which housed a number of vagrant and semi-permanent ladies in waiting. It had recently revived new interest among local residents as the rumors of an oil pipeline project pouring money into Fairbanks had already drawn in a few imports from such far away places as California. Trapper Jim was in awe when he saw them. Their skin was liked oiled amber. Their hair the color of honey. Their arms and legs were long and slender, prickling with golden down. They lounged. They stretched. They laughed carelessly in a manner he’d never quite heard women laugh before.
The first thing Trapper Jim did was plunk a nugget on the counter and say, “I’m buying everyone a drink.”
“Mighty cordial of you, Jim,” said Sally, who kept a sharp eye on the bar night and day. “But I know your kind. Plunk one more down on the table for insurance before I serve. Last time you was here, it cost me five hundred dollars to replace all the windows.”
“I paid you up, Sally.”
“So you did, but it took six months. This time I want insurance.”
“You give me a hard life. Women. They all give a hard life. It ain’t enough for them that a man be there, shuffling his feet and obliging, she’s gotta make him over in her own image.”
The two glittering chunks lay there on the counter a moment, then were swiftly folded in by the somewhat plump and work reddened hands. There is an odd thing about gold. The glint gets in the eye a moment, infecting it, exciting it, bidding you to follow it. Within minutes one of the California blondes had taken a seat beside him. “You are a prospector?” She asked. To his nod, she smiled and touched his biceps almost in awe. “I’ve always wanted to meet a…. prospector.” She smiled again, breathing the last word out between her teeth.
“There’s all kinds of prospectors,” he said, for a moment remembering he was attached to a lady of business.
“I’m sure that there are,” she laughed, and he couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen such blue, blue eyes.
He fell into them. Later he said, it wasn’t his fault. He had been bewitched by them. Somehow words just began spilling out of his mouth as she sat there listening and watching him with her round, blue eyes. He talked up a blue streak and was still chatting at two in the morning when Etta Mae finally found him. Having tucked in all the signatures and notarized affidavits into a manilla envelope and deposited them at the hotel, Etta began her own round of homages, but with a more well-defined objective; locating Trapper Jim.
At first, she was more indignant at finding him in an establishment of questionable reputation than that he had gained the attention of a buxom blonde. In fact, her first expression appeared to be one of relief; probably because she did not find him swamped with beguiling evening exercise enthusiasts. Instead, he was sitting at a bar stool, making conversations. It was only after she scolded him for making himself so sparse she had to hunt him down, that she noticed his audience contained only one person, a blue eyed blonde who smiled at him and asked him who the rodeo queen was who had just barged in on them.
“I’d be more properly asking you who you be,” said Etta. “I been born and raised right here where you’re standing and I ain’t never seen the likes of you.”
“Now Etta,” chastised Trapper Jim. “That ain’t no way to talk to strangers. She come all the way from California and ain’t even settled in yet. I done forgot your name or did ya even give it?”
“My name is Glenda Lee Harrison,” introduced the blonde, extending a very slim, well manicured hand. Etta Mae hesitated before touching it, then held it as though she was handling a limp, dying bird. “I’m sure I’m pleased,” she mumbled.
“Most people just call me Glen. I like the spatial indifference of a cross-gender name. My specialty has been in cognitive skills functions for two years. I applied for a job with occupational therapy with the hospital, but I was told I have to be a resident for a year before I could be considered for the job. So here I am, learning how to survive as an Alaskan for a year before I can work in my field of expertise.”
“That sure is an admirable amount of language for being as to who you are,” said Etta Mae. “Most the folks around here don’t have a great many job titles that can’t be pronounced. It must be a job just keeping up with remembering all the names of your specialties.”
The blonde smiled again, but unmistakably, mainly for Jim. She placed one arm on the counter as she did so, resting her bosom against it so the cleavage pointed directly at her admirer, and the open blouse around it strained. “Technically, I’m not from California,” she said. “I spent my final college years studying at U.C.L.A. but I’m originally from Denver.”
“There you go,” said Trapper Jim enthusiastically. “Do you see? Colorado ain’t so foreign. Thee’s lots of folk around here from Colorado.”
“But not so many of them pour out the fronts of their blouses while pronouncing a lot of words that ain’t got no reason being in the English language.”
Glen straightened up a bit then and raised her eyebrows, but managed to keep smiling. “Are all the women around here like this?” She asked Trapper Jim directly.
“No, ma’am. I mean yes, they’s some that are real scrappers. And maybe they can get a real arm hold on Etta now and then, but in the end, she can wrestle ‘em all down. I wouldn’t go messing with her none. She could be a worry.”
“I see…” she said, although she didn’t make it plain what she did see. “Are you and Etta married?”
“We’re partners!” Answered Etta quickly. “We done partnered up and now we’re going into business. We’re going to be cattle ranchers. I just got all the final sales contracts done today while this big lug was out galloping around with trollops.”
“I didn’t have no trollop with me,” protested Trapper Jim. “I came here on my own.”
“It don’t matter. Tomorrow we gotta be thinking about how we’re gonna get all that cattle home and start taking care of it.”
“I done figured that out,” said Trapper Jim proudly. “While you was cavorting with all those clerks and secretaries, figuring you’d cut a fancy scene, I want straight to the main office, yes sir-ree, and bought us some cow ponies.”
“What main office?” Asked Etta, “what cow ponies?”
“Well, now, it’s a fact not many people know about, but while they’re sitting around waiting for an appointment, the boss ain’t even there. All the important people run off to their favorite bar from two to four and that’s where you can find them. That where the best business is had. I bought three cow ponies and a mule. They’re leaving them at Clint’s, so we can just round up them buffalo and head them on in from there.”
“Buffalo?” Asked Glen, who had been following the conversation with an expression hovering somewhere between confusion and amazement. “I thought you said cattle.”
“There’s buffalo, too,” agreed Etta. “Well, we’d better be hitting the hay. We still got a bunch of arranging to do with all them commissions.”
“Where are you staying?” Asked Glen. “I don’t mean to be rude, but honestly, I don’t know anyone in this town, and I’d really like to learn more about the local people. “Maybe we could have lunch at the Caribou Lodge. My hotel is just a couple of blocks from there.”
“That a fact?” Said Etta without thinking. “Why, we ain’t so far from the Caribou, ourselves. Matter of fact, it’s right across the street.”
“Then you’re at the Fairview. I’ll see you there.”
Without knowing how it happened, Etta agreed that they would be having lunch together at the Caribou Lodge. Although Etta muttered all the way back to the hotel, Trapper Jim had not one word to add to her tales of woe concerning her efforts to find him and discovering him cavorting with strange women, nor did her add to her testimony of the amount of hard work and planning she had put into their business. He did, however, occasionally sing an incoherent tune that seemed to be a mix of all the music he had heard that day.
The next morning, neither one of them were able to retrace their footsteps very far beyond the third tavern they’d visited. They hummed a bit about what might have happened and pieced together what they believed happened, and in the end decided what was important was they had completed a successful business day. Etta Mae showed Trapper Jim the papers in her manilla envelope and he showed her the crumpled bills of sale in his pocket. They were still congratulating each other when they heard a knock at their door. Believing it was probably the maid, Etta Mae scooted the dogs under the bed, then opened the door, saying, “we done put Mutt Head and Noser in the jeep, just like you asked. No need to be frettin’. We’ll be out of here in ten minutes.” She paused, momentarily wordless. The woman standing in front of her was neither dressed like a maid, nor looked like one she had ever seen. Her blonde hair was plaited into two smooth braids that glanced off her shoulders. She wore a brand new satin western shirt, and stiff, very tight jeans. “I think I remember meeting you once before,” she finished uncertainly.
“We met last night,” said Glen, wrinkling her eyes to match the smile on her face. “We were all gong out to lunch together today, and you were going to tell me about gold prospecting.” She looked past Etta to include Trapper Jim in her introduction.
Trapper Jim had even fewer cohesive thoughts of the night before than Etta, although he was just as immediately impressed by Glen’s attentions. “Truth be told,” he said, “we done wrapped up our prospecting for the summer and we’s about to do some gentlemen farming.”
“Such as raising buffalo?” She asked, stepping into the room without invitation. “I would so much love to work on a ranch. I don’t think there’s any work at all here in Fairbanks, except as a waitress or at one of the nightclubs. It’s good money, but it’s such a waste of abilities, don’t you think? A woman should be more than just…” she paused until she was directly facing Jim. “Admired, don’t you think?”
“There’s plenty enough admiring,” agreed Trapper Jim. “The way I see it, if a person can make money at being admired, that ain’t no waste of ability. That be quite a talent.”
The dogs, curious about the stranger, crept out from under the bed. Mutt Head sniffed the brand new pants, his guard hairs standing straight up on his back, then trotted quickly over to sit watchfully between Etta Mae and Trapper Jim when she tried to pet him. Noser, still very much a puppy and unsure of the protocol for relieving bodily functions, sniffed her feet, then immediately peed on them. “He piddled on my shoes,” gasped Glen.
“So he did,” agreed Etta. “There’s some towels in the bathroom you can clean them off with. Poor Noser. He ain’t completely house broken yet, but he’s getting there. I reckon if we’re all goin’ to lunch, we best be showing some intentions. Ole Mutt Head and Noser ain’t gonna wait around much longer to hold in their obligations.”
This motivated them all enough to clean up the evidence of Noser’s misconduct, pick up their package of deeds and titles and go out the door. They left by the back exit so the desk clerk in the lobby wouldn’t see the dogs. Glen was still a bit miffed at the puppy, and both Mutt Head and Noser still held reservations about the stranger. They kept a broad distance from her as they circled around from the back of the hotel and crossed the street to the restaurant.
“You must be rather well known in this town,” said Glen. When I asked for you at the front desk, all I needed was your first names and they knew who I was talking about. That’s how I learned your room number.”
“We be known,” agreed Trapper Jim. “Some there are that know us a little too well, and some that don’t know us nearly so much as they think, but they all know us enough to say, ‘why sure. That be the Trapper Jim that live out there in Delta, and that be his woman dog racer. They ain’t much who don’t know us by name.”
The waitress drifted over, sighing and smoothing back her hair. “Your dogs followed you into the restaurant,” she observed, glancing with reproval at the two animals that waited politely under the table.
“Linda Lou, we been through this before,” said Trapper Jim. “These is specialty dogs. You don’t let specialty dogs just fly around in the wind. What if someone should steal them and learn their secrets? Maybe they could end up in a scientist lab.”
“I agreed when you just had Mutt Head, but now you’ve got two dogs. Jim, our establishment states no dogs allowed. How can I make an exception for two dogs?”
“This ‘un ain’t no more than part of a dog yet,” said Etta Mae. “But he’s got the gold fever. We can’t be taking any chances on ruining this out of him.”
“He has gold fever, does he?” Linda Lou tapped her pencil against her pad. “I’ll make a deal with you. You give me the first nugget he finds, and I’ll say nary another word about you bringing him in here. Since he’s a puppy right now, I’ll let him stay this one time, but not another until he’s proved himself a gold hunter.”
“You won’t be sorry,” promised Etta. “This is a direct Mutt Head descendent. Give him next spring to prove himself.”
Linda Lou sniffed, but took their order, measuring Noser the whole time with her eye. He had almost exactly the same markings as Mutt Head; an uneven brindle color on a coat that faintly resembled that of the retriever family. His ears stood half way up, while occasionally, one managed to remain fully erect for the length of time he was watchful. Even though he was still a puppy, he still managed to draw up some wrinkles around his neck like an accordion, then release them with a sigh as he lay down by Etta’s feet. He appeared, in every way, to be another Mutt Head. Etta Mae was right. Only time would tell if Noser had the same attributes that made Mutt Head so valuable.
Glen appeared a little flabbergasted, as though not believing what she had just heard. “You train dogs to hunt gold?”
“Not train them, no,” broke in Trapper Jim. “It be a natural instinct. There’s some dogs that hanker for the smell of gold. It’s in their blood and they can’t do nothing but go after it. Them dogs is rare. It maybe started with the Egyptians drinking gold into their blood, and giving a bit of that gold to their dogs. It became one of them genetic things, these dogs what got gold in their blood. Many a prospecting man has desired one, but few can find them.”
“And you’ve got two.”
“Well, now. That’s to be proved, but so it would appear.”
Glen shifted at the table, propping her chest inside her hands, while her elbows rested like two sharp points reaching out to Trapper Jim. “I would love to live outside of town, somewhere I could raise buffalo or go prospecting. Don’t you know anyone around where you live who is willing to hire on a hand?”
“I don’t rightly know that we do,” said Etta Mae quickly.
Trapper Jim disagreed. “There’s Sophie. She’s always willing to help a person out while ‘till they get on their feet. She knows just about every job that needs doing. Miss Glen can always stay with her awhile.”
“Supposing Sophie has her hands full and doesn’t have time for no one else?”
“Supposing she does? This here is a big girl. She can take care of herself. All she needs is a place to stay ‘till she finds a job.”
It wasn’t a favorable outcome for Etta Mae, but hospitality demanded that a means be found to accommodate aspiring settlers. She muttered about the next two days spent in finalizing deals for the transport of livestock and for the hired help she’d need for building a barn and a fence. She looked balefully at the collection of extra suitcases attached to their already over-flowing jeep. She grumbled about the complications of adding a sight seer to their complicated project, but she resigned herself to her fate. Glen was moving into Delta Junction and there was nothing much she could do about it.
to be contd.