Alaska Shorts: Eliza Waite by by Ashley E. Sweeney

Eliza marks each step on
the forward deck. She finds herself a spot at the port rail, and stares back
over the smoky city of Seattle. Eliza licks her chapped lips and tastes salt.
She balls her fists to keep warm and stamps her feet on the planked deck. She
blends into the crowd and observes her fellow passengers, who clang clang
up the gangway of the SS Ketchikan in droves.
The dapper men wear sack
coats with matching waistcoats and trousers, and knee-length overcoats, trimmed
with finest fur. The more fashionable among the men wear their hair short and
sport pointed beards with no moustache, and top hats. Few top hats line the
railings, however, as the majority of men on board wear the trappings of a
woodsman, and carry their belongings close: picks, shovels, saws, rifles, and
mining pans hanging hurdy-gurdy from their backs.
The society women wear
heavily corseted traveling gowns, with the new leg o’mutton sleeves that
balloon down to a tight wristlet. These stylish voyagers seem out of place,
especially with their outlandish hats, some with ostrich feathers or dulled
eyes of fox. The sporting women, on the other hand, wear tailored menswear,
with high-collared blouses and skirts above the ankle, and expose the lower
half of the leg above buttoned boots. Some of these daring women do not wear
hats at all. Eliza’s severe bun and absurd outfit mark her as some other type
of woman, amorphous and indistinguishable, perhaps a miner herself.
The Ketchikan plows
up the Inside Passage from Seattle to Alaska, and passes layers of islandssilhouettes
of ghost-like islands receding into dense mist. The vessel overnights at
Nanaimo, and takes on additional passengers at Port Hardy. Eliza wonders how
another human soul can fit on the already overcrowded steamer.
She wonders if she will
ever be warm again.
One day I will wear a fur
coat, and fur boots, and fur-lined mitts. Perhaps the fur will be the common
fox, or perhaps the smoothest mink. But tonight I would wear the fur of a great
brown bear if it would keep out this chill.
Eliza shivers on the top
deck. She moves to the starboard rail, away from the wind. She stamps her feet
to keep blood flowing. More than once she sees a pod of orca whales rising out
of the sea; their black fins knife through the straits andif she
catches a rare glimpseflashes of black and white appear in the creases
between waves.
By the time the ship
reaches Prince Rupert, cold climbs through Eliza’s sparse clothing and nags at
her very bones. She curls her hands into tight circles inside her new gloves
and breathes shallowly. Deep breaths hurt her lungs. She develops a cough.
She has yet to speak to
anyone on the voyage.
“Bad advice is seldom
forgotten!” a booming voice resounds. “Just remember that a fool and his money
are soon parted. And there be many fools on this journey.
A lanky Scot approaches
Eliza from the far rail.
“Name’s Richardson, Donald
Martin Richardson, that is. People call me Shorty. And you’d be?”
“Mrs. Waite.”
No other explanation.
“I’m one of the lucky ones
in this crowd of fools.”
“And what do you mean,
 “Heard of Rabbit Creek? They call it Bonanza
now. Hit the mother lode there last summer. Up by Dawson. Yukon Territory.
“Now, you’ll pardon me.
I’ve got a few nickels to earn. Some men get rich from the digging; others get
rich off the diggers.”
Shorty addresses a group of men nearby.
“So here’s what you’ll need, boys. Every Klondiker heading over the pass
needs a ton of supplies.
“You’ll need heavy woolens, flannels, buck mitts, and moccasins. Blanket
rolls and mackinaws. Mosquito netting and camphor. Add to this: navy beans,
bacon, rolled oats, and flour. Coffee, tea, condensed milk, and vinegar.
Potatoes. Onions. Mustard and pepper. It’s not for the faint of heart, boys.
You’ll get turned back at the Canadian border if you don’t have the supplies.
Don’t think I mean it? I’ve seen plenty turned away.
“That’ll cost you a nickel, partner. And you, sir? Yes, a nickel.”
Eight days after
disembarking the Seattle waterfront, the Ketchikan reaches Skagway at
nine o’clock in the morning, its arrival greeted with a late spring snow that
all but obliterates the long view toward White Pass. Eliza squints, and gazes
the whole length of the long half-mile toward town. False wooden storefronts
and the spire of two lone churches form Skagway’s pathetic skyline. Acres of
mud, stumps, shacks, and shoddy tents fill in the rest of the scene.
This will be my

A native New Yorker, Ashley
E. Sweeney lives and writes in La Conner, Washington. She is a graduate of
Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts and is an award-winning journalist in
Washington State. Eliza Waite is her
first novel. Visit her online at

Copyright © 2016 by Ashley E. Sweeney. Reprinted with permission.

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