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The Guardian Part 15

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"And it changes."

I nodded. "Like Soapy Smith and that little war they had, in this world. G.o.d only knows what effect that will eventually have."

"Or maybe G.o.d doesn't know anything. Or care." Chuck shouted for him and he left me with that.

Whatwas G.o.d's place in this universe crammed with all possibilities? Was He a guide, or just an overseer?

Or was He just a fiction we made up to help us tolerate life, with all its random twists and turns, with all its unexplainable loss and pain?



Maybe that was something even Raven didn't know. Or he knew, and was cruel enough or kind enough not to tell me. We all wind up in that horizonless place when we stop moving from moment to moment.

Perhaps whether we find it heaven or h.e.l.l or purgatory depends on the choices we made along the way.

Perhaps it's just a graveyard.

It was just starting to get dark when we could hear the faint noise that would be such a din in Juneau. I realized that my prediction about the parlor with the phonograph was probably not going to come true-we wouldn't be in until late at night, and of course the place wouldn't be open.

The noise was plenty loud when Juneau was just a glow on the horizon. We had a family meeting and the boys agreed that Fort Wrangell would be a quieter place to wait out the news from Skagway.

By the time the port came into view, everybody had their ears plugged with something, or were trying to sleep under m.u.f.fling pillows and piles of clothing. The first mate came around with his list, waking people up with the toe of his boot, asking whether people wanted to unload their kits here, or go on.

Only a handful had the combination of deafness and determination to face the prospect of weeks in that pandemonium. For the rest of us, the mate said we could go ash.o.r.e and try to find someplace quieter, but if we weren't on board by nine A.M. sharp, they would steam without us.

Doc and I left the boys in a tavern loud enough to drown out the noise, and toiled uphill. On his own, I knew he would have stayed with them, but it was obviously no place for a woman.

We found the little cafe, and it was still open. The tinkling of Scott Joplin greeted our ears when Doc opened the door, and he brightened considerably when he saw two men drinking beer and whiskey.

The toothless round man was kindly a third time, the first for Doc, of course. At this late hour, he offered sliced sausage and cheese, rather than his wife's pastries.

We got our beer and coffee and sat apart from the others. After two cylinders of Joplin, and on his second beer. Doc began the same outpouring I'd heard in the previous Juneau-memories of Lilian; love and loss.

It was different, though; more sentimental. Could it have been that this time he wasn't driven by a premonition of death? He faced an uncertain future again, but it was the kind of life he'd dealt with before. Perhaps he wanted me to know what I was getting into.

Around midnight I had a hot whiskey myself, to help me sleep through the noise, and we went on back to the ship. On the wharf there was a man standing on a box selling wax earplugs; we tried them, and found they were a quarter well spent.

The boys weren't back yet, unsurprisingly. Doc shouted that he would go search for them if they weren't back by daylight. We wrapped up in blankets and lay down together, hands touching.

I slept straight through until the whistle shrieked, ten minutes before casting off. Dan and Chuck were collapsed in their usual places, so I dozed for another hour or so, and then pried the stoppers out of my ears and made a breakfast of crackers and hard cheese.

The sky was threatening, so I started to set up our area for the heavy storm I expected to hit before noon. The men woke up and helped me batten down the hatches.

Our sons were very much the worse for wear, and although I pitied them, I secretly hoped that a few hours of seasickness would be a salutary lesson.

The storm that hit was so violent that the lesson was probably lost, the sober and drunk clinging to the rail together. After an hour or so, my own stomach gave up the fight and started heaving, all four of us united in freezing misery.

It was the same storm as before, but this time we were headed into it, and the ship had the same violent rise and fall-up slow, down fast-that had made Dan and me so deathly ill on Lake Huron when we were fleeing Philadelphia.

The storm lasted all day, until sunset, which was about nine o'clock. As night fell, so did we, drenched and aching. I woke around midnight and made broth, which had a slight restorative effect. We started to look forward to living, rather than dying.

In the morning light we began to negotiate the Wrangell Narrows, an important transition: we all had the same remembered past from here south. I could stop watching what I said, in that regard.

There was an interesting surprise waiting for us at the dock- dozens of prospectors who had changed their plans, going inland along the Stikine River, the route everyone had taken to the Yukon before the Chilkoot Pa.s.s had opened. With Skagway closed down for an indefinite period, these men had chosen the somewhat longer alternative.

And they needed more supplies.

A broker came on deck and offered a blanket 10 percent over what we had paid in the States, for anything. Then, we found out, he turned around and sold it piecemeal with a 25 percent markup.

Doc was sure he could bypa.s.s the broker and make a quick profit. He went to the boys about splitting the kit to sell his third, and they surprised him by saying "sell it all."

It was a little unfair, I supposed; they were dispirited by the day of violent illness and confused and upset by the developments in Skagway. If I had been an objective parent, I would have counseled them to wait a few days before deciding to give it up. Instead, I pounced on the chance.

From my diary I had a list of everything and its price. I copied it out and added 25 percent, while the men were offloading the kit to the far end of Front Street, which was serving as a kind of trading post.

Chuck borrowed some paint and printed on a plank EVRY-thingCOS, which made me cringe, but did the job.

Doc and I carried two boxes of books out to the school. Grace Logan was ecstatic, and sent her three biggest boys back to carry the rest.

By the time we'd finished that, our own boys had sold more than half of the supplies, and were stunned by the amount of money they suddenly had-$1,400 in bills and coin and gold dust.

Doc went around comparing prices, and found that our inventory was going so fast because other people's markups here were greater than 25 percent. We sent the boys into town for an alcoholic hangover cure and took over the selling, with an additional 10 percent markup. We sold almost everything before sundown, and got back aboard theWhite Nights with $2,591 and a box of cans of sardines.

We ate sardines all the way to Nunaimo, three days, and I've never opened a can of them since.

The view from midcentury.

Doc and I were married by a city official in Seattle. The four of us had a long talk, and we decided not to risk the family fortune on oranges or artichokes, but to move back to the Midwest.

I believe my second son was conceived one night on the Pullman car that took us back to Missouri, I named him Gordon, for reasons I could never tell anyone, and also gave him Doc's Christian name Charles.

Last year, in 1951, Charles Gordon Coleman was awarded the n.o.bel Prize in physics. He changed the world, this world, I hope for the better.

Other interesting things happened between his birth and his journey to Stockholm.

We bought acreage in Rolla and turned it into a fairly successful farm, with various crops rotating through the seasons-what they call a truck farm now. Chuck is still on the farm today, a white-bearded patriarch.

My Daniel had no patience for it, and after a year went off to sea with the merchant marine.

He joined the navy in World War I and perished when his ship was torpedoed by a German submarine.

Strange to write those words. He also died in a gunfight in Dawson City. Both deaths were real, and the first one hurt more than the second.

I taught high school in Rolla for twenty years, part-time, as I was making more money in my second career, writing pulp fiction. I wrote at least one story a week, under a variety of male pseudonyms-westerns, science fiction, mysteries-and the occasional romance, under my own false name, Rosa Coleman.

That figured in one of the strangest meetings of my life. I was shopping in Rolla in the summer of 1905, and sat down on a park bench to rest and cool off. A large man sat down on the other end of the bench.

"Rosa Coleman," he said, and I looked up, expecting one of my readers. There were several such in Rolla. His face seemed vaguely familiar, but he wasn't a local.

He gave me a mysterious smile. "Or is it Rosa Tollivet?"

I stood and fought the impulse to flee. "Who are you?"

"We were never formally introduced. My name is William Sizemore. Late of the Pinkerton agency." Of course. The last time I'd seen him, he was lying on the floor, bleeding, only the whites of his eyes showing.

"I'll... I'm glad to see that you're alive." He rubbed the back of his head. "Was it your son who slugged me?" I nodded. "Pretty good job."

"You've been tracking us for seven years?"

"Hardly." He took off his hat and mopped his forehead, "I caught up with you in Wrangell in ninety-eight on your way back to the States." All I could do was look at him.

"You should never have p.a.w.ned the revolver. Along the bottom of the barrel, it was stamped 'Property of the Pinkerton Agency,' and had an identification number. I was fired for not having reported it lost-but I was about to quit anyhow.

"I didn't like your husband, the first one, and suspected thatyour story was the true version. I decided to lie-protecting myself as well as you-and telegraphed him that you had disappeared during a bad storm the previous winter, and were missing and presumed dead. It was child's play to steal a missing-persons form from the Dodge City Police Department. Your son was presumably headed for the Philippines.

"I followed your trail to Seattle, and found people who remembered you as the lone woman on the Russian freighter. I was headed for Skagway when the troubles there closed it, and found that the ship was returning.

"I waited in Wrangell, pretty well disguised as a scruffy prospector. Haggled for supplies with your son and his friend, and then followed them to a bar when you and Doc showed up. We talked for awhile and I got your cover story.

"Followed you back to Seattle and saw the marriage announcement. Left you alone then, biding my time in Philadelphia, until now."

"What's happened now?"

"Edward remarried early this year. But it didn't last." He unrolled the newspaper he was holding, a week-oldPhiladelphia Inquirer. There was a front-page story,"millionaire lawyer found dead -Police suspect Young Wife in Poisoning."

"She's actually admitted to it," he said. "Even if she doesn't go to jail, she won't get a penny of his fortune.

I think it's time for you to reappear."

"As his long-lost wife? I'm not married to him anymore."

"No one in Philadelphia knows that but me. And for ten percent, I'll never tell."

"Ten percent of how much?"

"More than two million dollars."

Of course I considered it, if just for a few moments. I tried to express my feelings to Mr. Sizemore.

"Even if the millions came with no strings attached, I would hesitate."

"That's hard to believe."

"I've had millions. It was the most miserable time of my life."

"But you wouldreally have them now! You could buy anything for yourself and your family."

"Not without explaining where the money came from."

"A rich relative died."

"And if anyone-like Edward's nasty sister!-was curious and did the slightest investigation, it would come out that I was married to two men, and defrauded Edward's relatives out of the money. I'd lose the money and go to prison."

"I think a good lawyer who knew the true circ.u.mstances could prevent both."

"To the shame, and perhaps loss, of my actual family."

He shook his head. "Consider this. The only link to your actual past is me. I would never tell anyone the truth, because my ten percent would look like extortion, then."

What is it now,I thought. But he hadn't threatened to expose me.

He handed me a business card. "This is too much, too fast for you. Think it over. I'll be at the Hotel Central for a week. Please reconsider." He turned to go.

"Mr. Sizemore. You've gone to considerable expense to come out here. Let me reimburse-"

"You have even less money than I," he said with a quaver in his voice that might have been anger. Then he walked out of my life.

I read through the Philadelphia paper and did feel a pang at the announcements and advertis.e.m.e.nts. The opera, fine restaurants, the new moving pictures and automobiles. I lazily considered a scenario where I would go to Philadelphia and collect the money, and then a few months later, meet a nice widower from Missouri; fall in love with him and marry, and we would live wealthily ever after.

But then Doc and Chuck and even Gordon would have to know the whole story, and live a lie for the rest of their lives.

I thought of mailing the article to Daniel, so he would know that the monster was dead. But no need to open old wounds. I folded up the paper and dropped it in the trash.

It would be foolish to pretend I have never regretted that decision. There's an old joke about farming: a rich relative dies and leaves a million dollars to a farmer. A newspaperman asks him what he plans to do with all that cash. He scratches his chin and says, "Guess I'll keep farmin' till the money runs out."

The farm sustained us, though, through generations. Chuck married in 1902 and continued the Coleman dynasty. We survived the Depression and, through luck of geography, the Dust Bowl.

I was never much more than an accessory to the farm. I put up vegetables and did the bookkeeping and the research to schedule rotation. But my main contribution was money, and it wasn't tainted money from Edward's family fortune.

The farmhouse we'd bought in the Rolla estate sale came complete with a ten-year-old Remington typewriter that almost worked. Doc fixed it up and I learned how to type by writing dime novels. The first one sold for more than the farm had made in its best month! So at the age of forty-three, I embarked upon a new career.

I had never written a story before, but had committed reams of poetry as a child, and had the required composition courses at Wellesley-plus a million or so words in my diaries. I can't say that anything I wrote approached being literature. But I had great fun, and people payed me for it!

Gordon didn't like farming much more than his older brother had, but he pitched in with a kind of grim determination. Science was his pa.s.sion. He made his own telescope and turned a spare storeroom into a chemistry lab, which he almost burned down a couple of times.

He had a serious accident the summer before he started high school-his foot caught in a combine and he lost most of the toes.

That got him out of a lot of farm work, and also saved him from the war that took his brother.

Gordon was offered a scholarship to Princeton in 1917, and graduated with honors. He went to Harvard for his Ph.D., and returned to Princeton to study and teach. His mentor was the atomic pioneer Leo Szilard, and they were coequals by the time they both disappeared into the wilds of New Mexico. "War work" was all he could tell me.

Years later, I would find out about the Manhattan Project, and how Gordon had changed the course of history.

The original Project had planned for the production of two devastatingly powerful A-bombs, Big Boy and Little Boy, which would be dropped on j.a.panese cities and kill millions, mostly women and children and old men. We would end the war with one vicious strike.

Gordon calculated that the precious U-235 could be redistributed so that a third bomb. Baby Boy, could give them a possible weapon for peace. Einstein convinced Truman to okay the strategy, and so Baby Boy was dropped into Tokyo Bay as a demonstration. There was little loss of life, but a dramatic mushroom cloud hovered over the city for a long time. The High Command and Emperor knew about the other two bombs, and knew they would be in the air the next day, and j.a.pan capitulated.

So millions of lives were spared, American as well as j.a.panese, because if Manhattan had failed, they were going to invade and take j.a.pan inch by terrible inch. Millions of lives allowed to continue, because a half-century ago on another world, Raven walked through my door and I listened to him.

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The Guardian Part 15 summary

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