The Gold Rush Kid

The Gold Rush Kid

by Mary Waldorf

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When 12-year-old Billy McGee’s mother dies suddenly of typhoid fever, he and his older sister, Edna, are faced with the unhappy prospect of getting sent to live with distant relatives. Instead, Edna disguises herself as a boy, and the two set out from their home in Skagway, Alaska, for the Yukon Territory. They know that plenty of adults, with all the right equipment and supplies, have attempted the grueling trek over the mountains to Canada and haven’t made it. But Billy and Ed are determined to find their pa, who left for the gold fields two weeks earlier. With the help of a young man named Jack and a dog named Persey, the McGees persevere and adjust to life on the gold rush trail. Prospecting for gold isn’t quite the grand adventure Billy imagined it would be, though. Survival in such an unforgiving environment demands sacrifices. And sometimes, those sacrifices can seem horribly unfair—like having to say goodbye to a beloved pet. This deftly drawn tale of grit, luck, and survival is full of seamlessly integrated details of the Klondike gold rush of the 1890s. Told with humor and suspense, here is a fast-paced, action-packed story that will captivate the imaginations of adventure and historical fiction fans alike.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780547562971
Publisher: HMH Books
Publication date: 06/16/2008
Sold by: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 240
File size: 364 KB
Age Range: 10 - 12 Years

About the Author

The late Mary Waldorf wrote two additional novels for young readers, including the middle-grade time-travel adventure Thousand Camps. She lived in Monterey, California.

Read an Excerpt

We took the sheet stove and all our gear ashore and built a fire and had our coffee and flapjacks in peace for once, and in daylight, too, but there wasn’t much celebration. Pa gave orders to break up the scow, and we all set to, ripping the planks apart and turning them into a sled with Jack’s metal strips fastened to the bottom for runners. It was hard, working fixed in one spot and trying not think about your frozen feet and nose, and forcing your fingers to keep moving inside mittens and gloves. But we kept at it until we had one big sturdy sled for the provisions, and the small sledge for leftovers. Then we began a slow trudge along the riverbank, always keeping it in sight so as not to lose our way. Sometimes we could travel on the river itself, if there was a fairly smooth stretch of ice, but mostly it froze in rough blocks that was heaved up and tilted at one another like they was in some kind of war. Then we had to break a trail alongside. It was slow, lonely, and cold—so cold in the mornings, it made your lungs ache the first breath you took outside the tent. We layered up our clothes over the suits of heavy underwear Pa picked up for us back at Lake Bennett, and covered up our faces as best we could. Pa said there must be others who had got caught by Old Man Winter same as us, but we didn’t see them, nor any sign of winter camps.
After a couple days of trudging, Ed began to limp when she thought no one was looking, but I saw. I mentioned it to Pa while he was fixing supper, after we had got the tent set up. He stopped filling a pot with beans and marched right over to Ed, who was huddled by the fire. “Billy thinks your feet are giving you trouble, Sister. Is that true?” Ed was surprised, but she covered fast.
“Billy hardly ever knows what he’s talking about. I turned my ankle a little, that’s all, Pa.” “You’re not getting chilblains or a touch of frostbite are you, Miz McGee?” Jack asked. Ed gave him a flinty look. “I know all about them ailments,” she said, which was a flaming lie. We none of us knew a thing about traveling in such cold weather. Only Jack, who had lived through hard winters in Wisconsin, knew more. He said she should rub her feet good and wear more socks. He rummaged through his gear and got out a pair for her to borrow.
“These are extra. I’d appreciate you taking them.” “No thank you,” she said.
“I don’t aim to see you lose your toes for pride, Sister,” Pa said. “You take off your boots and let me rub your feet, and then you put on them socks and tell Jack Purdy much obliged.” Her face went red, but she did like she was told. When she kicked me good and hard the next morning on wake-up call, I knew it was payment for tattling. I thought for once I had bested her, because I wasn’t having trouble with my feet. Maybe it was that notion made me kind of cocky, and led to the accident a couple days afterward. What happened was, Jack and me was hauling the big sled along the bank when I spied a smooth stretch of river ice.
“Hey, Jack,” I said, “looky there. We can go on the river a ways.” I turned sharp and hit a slope I hadn’t noticed.
My feet went out from under me and I slid and then sprawled sideways down the bank, with the sled coming right along after me. Jack jerked so hard on his rope that the sled skewed around. I don’t know how it happened exactly, but the end of a runner stabbed me hard in the ankle. I lay there sprawled out while Jack got the sled halted and came around to help.
“Whoa,” he said, looking down at my leg. I didn’t feel much of anything until he and Pa hauled me onto the sled and took off my boot. There was a fair-sized gash with blood oozing out.
It began to throb after Pa cleaned it and made a bandage. Although the day was only half gone, he said we should make camp. That meant losing time, I knew, and it didn’t make me feel any better to see Ed stomping around like her feet was made of cast iron. The next morning when she called breakfast, I crawled out of the tent, took one step, and fell over from the pain.
“I’ll be right as rain after I eat,” I said, remembering that I had fallen asleep before the beans got heated the night before. When I’d finished off the flapjacks and hot tea, I tried to walk again, but couldn’t seem to put any weight on that foot. I crawled back into the blankets while the others stood around holding their steaming tin cups and peering in at me through the tent flap.
“We could stay here until Billy gets better,” Pa said, “though it ain’t much of a camping place. Maybe we’d ought to turn back to Fort Selkirk.” “Turn back?” Ed said. “Oh, please, Pa, no.” “Well, what are we to do? The boy can’t walk. And if that wound were to get infected . . .” he trailed off with a worried look on his face that got me to thinking that losing time might be the least of my concerns.
“You cleaned it outtttt real good, Pa. I’ll haul him on the little sled while you and Jack pull the big one.” “I don’t know, Sister. Seems like too much. What do you think, Jack?” Jack took a swallow of his tea and wiped his mouth. “Miz McGee might be able to do it. Let’s give it a try.” Right away, Ed set to making a place for me amongst the softest provisions, the bags of flour and cornmeal. Then she covered me up with nearly all our blankets and said my main job was to heal up and not talk. We started again, going slower, of course. Jack and Pa, each with a rope around his chest, trudged ahead with the big sled, carrying near all our goods in a great pile, and nobody behind to keep it going right. Ed would holler if it seemed likely to tip over, but mostly everyone saved their breath for the effort of walking.
I lay among the blankets and sacks feeling shamed and sorry for the fool thing I done, and wondering whether my ankle would quit hurting after it froze solid, and if there was a chance I might actually lose my foot. We’d had some fall of snow by then, and because of that, the air wasn’t as cold as it might’ve been. But for a person lying still, it was pretty cold.
After a while of watching mist and fog come off the frozen river and sift through the trees, I fell into a sort of daydream, thinking how dark and secret the country was. I recalled stories I’d heard of folks who froze to death. At first they ached with cold just like I did, but after a while, they felt warm, even cozy. Then they went to sleep and never woke up. I wondered if that would happen to us. Or maybe to some of us, and the others would go right on walking to Dawson, which in my dream was a big town climbing over a hillside, with cabins all lighted and smoke coming out of chimneys. Seemed like I could see into one cabin where a woman was reading with the lamplight shining on her brown hair. It was Ma. She turned away from her book and looked out toward me, like she was going to say something. Then the lamp blinked out, and the cabin seemed to melt into darkness, only I could still see the shape of it in a grove of trees. I squeezed my eyes shut, and when I opened them, the cabin was still there, and we was going right by.
“Hey,” I said in a croaky voice I hardly knew. “Hey, Ed.” My sister kept on trudging so I croaked louder, “Ed, stop!” She pulled the sledge sideways to anchor it against the snow, and straightened up with her mittened hands on her back. “What’s the matter, Billy, for pity’s sake?” “Looky there,” I said, struggling to sit upright, and point. “A cabin, ain’t it?” “What cabin?” Then she dropped her harness ropes and pitched forward, hollering, “Pa, Pa, come back!”

Pretty soon, there came him and Jack, stumbling along, probably thinking something bad had happened. “Look!” Ed said. At first they couldn’t believe it. “A cabin,” Pa said in wonderment. “The very thing I was hoping and praying for since Billy’s accident, and here it is.” “Let’s go see,” Jack said, and he and Pa went off through the untracked snow, saying me and Ed had to stay where we was. We watched them disappear in the little grove of trees. In the stillness you could hear the creak of a door opening, but there wasn’t no welcoming voice. We waited what seemed a lengthy time, feeling the night cold coming down mean and hard. “What are they doing, Ed?” “I don’t know, but it seems like something ain’t right.” Finally, Pa and Jack came back. “Can we stay, Pa? Is there a stove?” “Yes,” Pa said in a low voice. “There’s a stove and some wood already cut and stacked. The old fella in there, owner or not, I don’t know, won’t be needing his firewood.” Not need a fire in the aching cold?
“How come, Pa?” “Hush,” Ed said, jerking the sledge rope so hard I nearly fell off. “Because he’s dead, that’s why. Ain’t that right, Pa?” He nodded. “Maybe was ailing when he got here and then died of the cold, ” Jack said.
“Looks like an old man all alone.” For a moment the four of us stared at the silent cabin. Then Pa said, “It seems to me, we should make a fire, get ourselves warm, and look to Billy’s leg.
But first, Jack, you and me will get the sledge and take care of things inside.” That meant putting the old fellow somewhere, I supposed. I never really got a look at him, but at first, it made me feel funny to eat supper, bacon with beans, hot and tasty as it was, with him nearby. Then I got used to the notion, and ate until I was full, and slept pretty well, too, after Pa had me soak my foot and ankle in warm salt water.
The next morning, everyone, except me, searched through the old man’s possessions: sacks of flour and beans, tools and blankets—almost as much as we had—and a supply of frozen fish, which we didn’t have. They looked for some sign of who he was, where he come from, if he had partners or family, and found nothing except scribbles in a battered notebook. It didn’t have any particular information according to Pa, beyond dates and the weather and a word or two on animals he saw.
“Let me see,” I said, thinking I might decipher the writing. As soon as I stepped out, my leg gave way, and I half-fell against the table.
“Tarnation,” I said as Pa hauled me upright and sat me on stool. “Looks like I’m crippled.” “Stop whining,” Ed said real brisk.
“You’re going to be fine.” “Miz McGee is right,” Jack said.
“You’ll be dancing a jig before you know it.” And he took a little turn around the cabin, his feet kicking out sideways, so comical I had to laugh.
Pa frowned, and cut his eyes sideways, I guess to let Jack know it wasn’t seemly to be doing a jig with the old man in the corner behind the stacked up stove wood.
“Beg pardon,” Jack said, and sat himself down with another cup of coffee.
“Beg pardon,” Jack said, and sat himself down with another cup of coffee.
“I’ve been thinking,” Pa said, “we might stay here a couple days to give Billy’s ankle time to heal, and we can give the old man a decent burial, too.” “Good idea,” Jack said. “What do you think, Miz McGee?” Ed looked a little flustered. Up to then, she hadn’t been talking to Jack direct. “I guess that would be only right,” she said finally, “since we’re going to use his goods.” “Ah,” Pa said, stroking his moustache. “That don’t seem quite honest, just to be taking someone else’s outfit.” “But, Pa, he don’t need it and we do.” “She’s right, Mr. McGee,” Jack said.
Pa looked from one to the other. “I suppose we don’t have much choice. Well, let that go for now, and let’s us three scout for a good burial spot. Maybe we can find a place where the ground ain’t froze clear through.” After they left, I crawled back to my blanket roll and slept some more. When I woke, I didn’t recall where I was for a moment, all alone in the wilderness.
Well, not entirely alone. The old man was close by. I fell to thinking about him and his life and wondering what his story might be. My foot throbbed something awful, but I did my best to ignore it. After a while, I crawled over to the table where Pa had laid the notebook. There was hardly anything in it except scribbled notes that looked near impossible to decipher. But since i didn't have nothing to do, I got myself on a stump stool, propped up my leg, and went through the last part of notebook as best as I could, Two or three entries before the end, something caught my eye.

“Couldn’t this morning . . . ” There was a gap with words too blurry to read and then, “. . . have to fend for themselves.” I rubbed at my gimpy leg, and stared at the notebook page. What was that likely to mean? Who would have to fend for what? Couldn’t be other people. Mules, maybe? Or dogs? Of course, dogs! That would explain the chunks of frozen fish—dogs—a dog team! Oh, glory, wouldn’t that be something? I hopped over to the door, wincing against the pain, and looked out into the wilderness of trees and down toward the frozen river.
“Halloo, dogs, where are you?” Everything was silent and still. No dark shapes came out of the bushes, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was right. I hopped back to the stove, loaded in some more logs, and waited for Pa and the others to come back and hear my idea. “Yes,” Jack said, “it makes sense. I saw footprints behind the cabin, not big enough for wolves.” “Hmm,” Pa said. “Might be they left the old man several days back when he quit feeding them. Probably they’re well on their way to Dawson now, or gone into the wild. I doubt they’ll come back.” “Let’s put out some of that frozen fish and see, Pa.” Pa put out fish the next morning and took it in untouched that evening. The same thing happened the next morning.
That was the day we buried the old man.
I was quite a bit better and limped to the burial on my own, Pa looking relieved that I seemed to be healing up right. We all stood around solemn while Pa read something from his Bible, and smoothed dirt over the mound. Jack had dragged up a sizable river rock to mark the place, and I thought to myself, we could've done that for Ma. Too late, now. Then we came back through the trees, still kind of solemn and silent.
Ed was in the lead, and just as she reached the clearing, she stopped us all with her arm flung up. There was a critter hunched over the frozen fish. It lifted its head and backed off snarling, a shepherd sort of dog with dirty yellow fur and a white ruff around its neck and chest.
“Hello, dog,” I said, careful not to move sudden. The dog cocked its ears at me and went back to eating. “Ain’t that something?” Jack said. “I wonder where the others are.” “What others?” Ed asked. Right then, just like they had heard, a couple more dogs came slinking out of the bushes. By and by, more arrived, until there was six.
“A team,” Pa said. “Get some more of that fish, Jack, if you will.” We all stood watching in wonderment while the dogs snapped and snarled over their dinner, taking care to keep out of the way of the one with the white ruff around its neck and chest.
“Hello, dog,” I said, careful not to move sudden. The dog cocked its ears at me and went back to eating. “Ain’t that something?” Jack said. “I wonder where the others are.” “What others?” Ed asked. Right then, just like they had heard, a couple more dogs came slinking out of the bushes. By and by, more arrived, until there was six.
“A team,” Pa said. “Get some more of that fish, Jack, if you will.” We all stood watching in wonderment while the dogs snapped and snarled over their dinner, taking care to keep out of the way of the one with the white ruff.
“Is that the lead dog, Pa?” “Could be, son,” he said, rubbing his moustache with his mittened hand.
“Well then,” Ed said, “we might have some help getting our outfits to Dawson, praise be.
“We’d be doing them a favor,” Jack said. “Looks like these critters are having a hard time trying to make it on their own. And sled dogs are bred to run.” “I suppose since we’re aiming to borrow a good deal of the old man’s goods, it won’t make our debt much worse to use his dog team,” Pa said slowly, as if he were working things out in his mind.
”That’s certain, and I don’t need to tell you, we need the help, Mr. McGee.” Pa went on rubbing his moustache.
“Well,” he said, “this is a rougher trek than even I reckoned, but I hate to just take things that ain’t mine.” “Pa, he can’t use this stuff anymore.” “That’s true, Sister, but still . . .” “Maybe someone in Dawson will know about the old man, and we can square it then,” Jack said.
Pa looked up, almost grateful. “Good idea, Jack. I’ll write a list of what we’re making off with.” He moved toward the cabin carefully, so as not to scare off the dogs. “Where’s that notebook?” Ed said she was going to look for the dog team harnesses, and Jack said he would help her. They walked off together, leaving me thinking about how nice it would be not to have to pull the sled, and how glad I was for the old man’s cabin.
Ed and Jack found the harnesses and other lines under a tarpaulin on one side of the cabin, which also covered a dog sled. They decided we could haul the sled we’d made, and have the dogs haul the one they was used to. Turned out with what the old man had left, grub and tools and blankets and the like, there was too much to haul even with two sleds. Pa said we should cache some stuff and come back for it later. While they were fussing with goods, sorting and packing, I saw to the dogs, chopping the frozen fish and parceling it out. At night the dogs disappeared into the bushes, but the next morning they was there again, yapping for their food. The lead dog, the yellow one with the white chest and collar, always got first dibs, and then the others could eat. She was female, which I guess was unusual for a lead, but you wouldn’t want to tangle with her over that. If the others came too close while she was getting her feed, she snapped at them, and they backed off respectful. I was kind of wary of her, too, but she seemed to take to me well enough. None of the dogs had names that we knew, of course, so we were free to call them any old thing. I named them all for people in the story book that Tom Thunder had took in Smuggler’s Cove: Ajax, Cyclops, Hector, Neptune, and Jason. The lead dog, I decided, would be Persephone, after a girl who went into the underworld, and when she come back each year, brought spring with her. Ed laughed. “People call sled dogs things like King and Jocko, or maybe Queenie,” she said. “They don’t name ‘em after people in Greek tales.” “I do,” I said. “Her name’s Persephone, and I’ll call her Persey for short. I believe me and her will be friends.” “Don’t get too attached, Billy. They’re only work dogs, you know.” That seemed a dumb thing to say, since we was depending on them to get us to Dawson and might not make it without, which she herself knew. But I didn’t argue. When the supplies were divvied up, and the sleds loaded with as much as they could bear, and the rest of the stuff hid away, we were ready to start. Pa insisted on leaving a stack of stove wood and a small bag of beans for anybody else who might come along desperate the way we had been. Then he and Jack straightened out the harnesses and put them on the dogs.
A strange thing happened as soon as the dogs were in harness. They fell into place with Persey and Ajax in the lead, and when they were fastened to the gang line, they begun to jiggle and strain to move. Jack was right. Those dogs wanted to run. They took off yipping, almost happy, it seemed, and us, too. My ankle was still sore to the touch, but had pretty well healed, and I felt good running alongside the team and talking at Persey. Pretty soon we crossed the mouth of the Stewart River where there was supposed to be a trading post, but we didn’t stop to look.
Sometimes we spied traces of other folks who had gone before us, but we never saw a soul. It was just us and our dog team mushing northward to the gold fields, going along at such a good pace that even Ed came close to being cheerful.

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