Clara Bixbee hadn’t prepared herself for the mass of bodies and fervor that carried her along the Skagway dock. She should have realized the dock would be overflowing after seeing the crowded conditions on the boat she’d traveled on from Seattle. If two men hadn’t been in a hurry to disembark and practically lifted her off the boat, setting her on the dock, she would still be trying to capture the layers of her skirts to descend the plank.
Instead, she found herself crushed among the moving bodies, propelling her toward the rustic town not far from the shoreline. They stepped off the pier and most of the men moved to the right. The goods and trunks that were stowed below deck now sat in a pile on the shoreline. Loaded row boats continued to add to the mound.
Clara stopped to scan the pile for her trunk. Someone ran into her from behind, knocking her into the back of a man. Hands fumbled about her wool coat. Having grown up in Seattle, she knew when her pockets were being picked.
She jabbed her ever-present umbrella into the pick-pocket’s belly. Air whooshed from the man’s mouth as he doubled over, withdrawing his hand from her pocket along with her pocket book. The very pocket book that held half of the money she’d brought with her.
“I’ll take back what’s mine.” Clara retrieved her pocket book from the man’s hand and decided it would be best to find a room and send someone for her trunk. The trip on the boat had been harrowing enough with so many men, bawdy women, and not a moment’s peace. If they weren’t all talking about how they would find gold, they were gambling, drinking, and carrying on all hours of the night. She’d complained to the captain, but he’d been in the midst of the rabble-rousing.
Shoving the pocket book into an inside coat pocket, she continued out of the throng of bodies, poking them with the point of her umbrella to move them out of her way. Once she put space between herself and the new arrivals, Clara stood in the middle of a muddy street. The mountains rising up beyond the town were white with snow, yet the streets of Skagway were muddy and the air not much different than she would have encountered in Seattle had she been out exploring the city with friends.
“Outta the way!”
Clara returned her attention to the street and found her feet stuck in the mud as a team of horses pulled a wagon loaded with goods up from the dock and straight at her. The mud sucked tighter around her ankles as she jammed the point of her umbrella in the muck and tried to pull her feet free. Her heart raced as the brace of animals continued forward. Frantic, she waved her arms and shouted.
“Stop, I’m stuck. Stop!” The horses tossed their heads and their eyes widened, but the man in the wagon continued to lash out at them with a whip.
The thud of the large hooves and wooden wheels vibrated the ground under her feet. Heat from the horses’ breath touch her cheeks.
“He—” Her cry for help was cut short as an arm wrapped around her middle and pulled her out of the mud and into a rider’s lap.
“Miss, you really need to stay to the boardwalks this time of year.”
The male voice warmed the shell of her ear. The arm about her middle held firm but didn’t feel invasive.
Before she could offer there were no sidewalks from the dock to town, the arm released her and she slid to the walkway in front of a store. When her balance was restored, she spun to thank her rescuer, but all she saw was a gray Stetson, a wool coat stretched between wide shoulders, and the backside of a black horse before the man and horse were swallowed up in the bodies and conveyances in the street.
Clara stomped the mud from her shoes, thankful she’d worn her oldest pair of boots for this trip, and shook out the bottom of her skirt. Glancing at the building behind her, she immediately hustled along the boardwalk. Not only had the man plopped her down in front of a saloon, but reading the signs across the street, there were two more. She didn’t mind a glass of sherry now and then, but the way men were sauntering in and staggering out of the buildings, she made a note to stay far away.
A sign caught her eye. Telegraph. That would be the fastest way to let her mother and younger siblings know she arrived safely. She hurried to the door under the sign and went in. Not only would she get a message off to Mother but she’d locate a respectable hotel as well.
A thin man with a mustache and close-set eyes stood up. “Can I help ya, ma’am?”
“Yes, I’d like to send a telegraph to Seattle, for Mrs. Randolph Bixbee. 1113 State Street.” She dug her pocket book from inside her coat. “Have it say, in Skagway.”
“That’ll be five dollars.” The man held his hand out palm up.
“Five Dollars? That’s outrageous. I only asked you to send two words.” She clutched her pocket book to her chest as if the man would snatch it away and stared at him.
“Ma’am, you’ll find the prices up here are a lot different than you’re used to.” He nodded to his hand. “Why a bed is going to cost you a dollar here and two-fifty on the other side of the pass. Meals is a dollar.”
Clara continued to stare at the man as she calculated the money she’d brought with her and how far it would go if she had to pay the outlandish prices. It would save her mother a lot of worry if she received a telegraph today rather than a letter in a month. She turned her back on the man and dug in her pocket book for a five dollar note. With her pocket book back in the folds of her coat and the currency in her hand, she turned back to the telegraph operator.
“Could you direct me to a respectable hotel, please?”
He took the note and pointed to the door. “Go back out and continue into town. Take a left on Bond Street. You can’t miss St. James Hotel.”
“Thank you.” Clara tucked her umbrella under her arm and headed back out into the street. It was barely three in the afternoon and the sky was beginning to darken. Randy’s letters stated the nights were long in the winter and short in the summer, but she hadn’t conceived it would grow dark so early. The streets were still crowded with men. She didn’t wish to be on the streets after dark.
Traveling on the ship had opened her eyes to a rougher world than she’d ever experienced before. There had been lewd comments tossed her way along with groping hands when she’d dared to catch a breath of fresh air on the deck. She’d never thought her parents coddled her, since they allowed her and her siblings to travel about Seattle as they wished. But this journey showed her she had lived a coddled life. If her mother knew the conditions, she would have never sent her oldest daughter alone to find her son and now heir to the family business.
She turned the corner and spotted the large building with the placard “St. James Hotel.”
There was a steady stream of people entering and leaving the building. Please, let there be a room available. She trudged across the street and elbowed her way through the men standing on the walkway.
“Well, what have we here?” A tall thin man with a black beard grasped her arm.
“Unhand me, this instant!” Clara yanked her arm out of his grasp and he laughed.
“Only checking out the new scenery.” The man’s eyes roved up and down her person making her cringe.
Huffing and ignoring the other men’s laughter, she shoved open the hotel door and entered. Stuffy warm air wrapped around her, thawing her nose. A line of five people all men stood at the counter inquiring about rooms.
“I’m sorry. That boat that just came in filled me up, boys. You’ll have to go looking somewhere else.” The clerk closed the large book on the counter and shook his head.
Clara elbowed her way through the stream of men walking her way. At the counter, she stopped the clerk from leaving by clearing her throat.
“I would like a room, please.” Clara drew her pocket book from inside her coat.
“I don’t have a room, but I do have a bed. You’d be bunking with Mrs. Eiderly.”
“A married woman?” That would be better than no room at all. “Where is her husband?”
“She’s a widow. Been up here a month waiting out the winter to go back in and work her claim.”
“I’ll take it.” She could use the advice of someone who had been over the pass. And maybe this Mrs. Eiderly had run into Randy and could tell her exactly where to find him.
“How long you staying for?” He turned the book on the counter and handed her a pen to sign her name.
“Only until I can get supplies and a guide. Two maybe three days.” She signed with a flourish and smiled at the clerk. Soon she’d be on her way to find Randy.
The man shook his head. “If you didn’t bring supplies it could take you longer than you think to round them up. Which pass you going over?”
“Chilkoot, it’s the fastest.”
His gaze skimmed down her person and then he shook his head. “Miss, you don’t look strong enough to handle that pass. You best set your sights on the White.”
“It takes longer to cross the White Pass. I don’t have the luxury of time.” She placed another five dollar note on the counter. “Use this for my room and to send someone to the dock to pick up my trunk, please.”
Holding out her hand she asked, “Do I get a key and what number is my room?”
“You’ll find room twenty-seven at the top of the stairs to the right.” He slid a key across the counter. “You best chat up Mrs. Eiderly. She’ll set you straight.”
Clara picked up the key and headed to the room she would share with a stranger. At least on the ship she’d had a small room to herself.
At the room, she knocked on the door. No point in scaring the woman by unlocking and barging in. No answer. She unlocked the door and stared into a dark room.
Once her eyes adjusted to the darkness and using the dim light from the hall, she noticed a light bulb, like those dangling in the hallway, in the middle of the room. The light was of course up high enough no one would hit it with their head. Her finger tips didn’t even touch the bulb. She scanned the room and found a chair hidden under a pile of clothes. Clara dumped the clothes on a bed and dragged the chair under the light.
Standing on the chair, her fingers found the turn key, she click the light on. From her perch on the chair, she was pleased to find two single beds in the room. The thought of sleeping with a woman she didn’t know had sent her mind into worrying if the woman was large or small, well groomed or not so well groomed. But the clothes strewn about the room were mostly men’s. Did I enter the wrong room? She stepped off the chair and back out into the hall to reread the number twenty-seven. It was, indeed, the right room.
She closed the door, unbuttoned her coat, and hung it and her hat on the hook by the door. To keep busy while waiting for her trunk to arrive, she began cleaning the bed that looked the least used. Clara picked up and folded the clothing on the bed and placed them on the other bed with rumpled covers.
Once her bed was cleared, she kicked the other belongings away to make a path from the door to the window. The streets below were dark except for the glow of light through establishment’s lights and open doorways. Where was her roommate and when would her trunk arrive?