A journal of narrative writing.

As the sun shifted over the hills Ingram worked on, shovelling up dirt from the creek-bed and sliding it into the pan, letting the water wash over it, picking out rocks, breaking up lumps of mud between his fingers, swirling the water so that it swept away the silt and gravel. How his arms ached, how he sweated despite the water’s chill having settled into him like the onset of an illness.

He rubbed his forehead with the back of his hand and, when at last he stood, the pan empty and dripping, he staggered a little. His legs were stiff, his eyes sore from staring into all those panfuls of dirt. The sky looked washed out, but beneath it the world had turned golden with evening. He tossed the pan onto the bank and pressed his hands against his hips, bent himself so far back against his cramped muscles that his hat tipped off and dangled from its string. Beneath, his hair was damp and clung to his fingers as he ran them through it, but how good to feel the cool touch of the breeze on his scalp, to stand tall at last. It had been evening for hours already and would be for hours more. This far north a man could work all day and all night and scarcely notice one turning into the other. A man had to, else winter came and found him without resource and then there was nothing for it but to head south, despite what it had cost him to get here.

Ingram pushed his hat back on. He picked up his shovel and plunged it through the water, heaving up another glistening load that slipped into his pan with a hiss. He’d been at it so long his belly was hollow and his head tight. Sometime around midday, after he’d made coffee, he’d set a pot of beans over the fire, should’ve checked that they hadn’t boiled dry but he’d been too goddamn eager to keep going. Most likely they were ruined and he’d have to make do with hard tack and moose jerky, but not yet. He reckoned he could work for another hour, maybe two, before exhaustion overtook him.

He crouched and tipped the edge of the pan into the flow. The water swelled and sent up a bloom of silt that the current tugged away, and just as he was tilting the pan and the gravel was rolling over on itself, he saw it: a gleam under the bright surface of the water. He clawed through the gravel and let it slip through his fingers, seized more, over and over until—yes—a nugget the size of a pecan still in its shell, cold as the creek water and shining against his palm. He clutched the gold hard into his fist and whooped with joy. It didn’t seem real. This place was no different from the others he’d tried—the white-trunked birches, the fresh green of their leaves, the creek full of the same mud and pebbles—yet he could make his fortune here. He’d need to claim this land, and walk the ten days to Arctic City to register it, and buy in supplies from the trading post to keep him going, all winter long if need be so no other man jumped his claim, for eventually word would get out, it surely would.

He was wrapping the nugget in his handkerchief when he felt it. Something not quite right. He turned toward the edge of the woods. There, the pale canvas of his tent. There, the dazzle of the sun off birch leaves. He pushed back his hat and listened over the coursing of the creek but there was nothing except the hiss of the wind in the trees, the creak of his throat as he swallowed. What made him shove the handkerchief into his pocket and snatch up his gun? He couldn’t have said except that the shadows beneath the trees were so still; everything was so still. He ran a hand over his face, down his beard, held it against his throat. This was what it felt like to be watched. The woods over there, full of darkness, him here in the lowering light by the creek, plain as day.

He told himself, must be a moose standing there like a big dumb old horse.

He told himself, could be it was a bear sniffing around the beans he’d left cooking, or trying to climb the tree where he’d hung what was left of his supplies, and he’d heard that a bear was good eating, if you could kill it before it killed you.

But this stillness felt clotted with malevolence and as he took off downstream he hunched low, and stayed low when he came circling through the brush toward his camp. The whole way he cursed himself for being so foolish as to let out a whoop, for if there was one thing he’d learned it was that you were never as alone as you believed, even in this wilderness.

Here on the edge of the woods the shade chilled him. He touched the bulge in his pocket where he’d stuffed the handkerchief then crept forward, lifting low branches with the barrel of his gun and only stopping when thorns snagged his shirt. He yanked himself loose, his hand all a-tremble, then got to his knees in last year’s dry leaves and settled the stock against his shoulder. He pushed the lever forward and winced at the click, click it sent into the silence. Down the barrel he stared at the ghostly trunks of the birches, stared between their shadows, and the air felt slippery like he was missing something so obvious he’d kick himself for it. The end of the barrel twitched over and over, but when he tried to slow his breathing he gulped at the air like a drowning man. Beneath his arms his shirt was wet through and he shivered hard. He turned his head this way and that, looking about him so fast he saw nothing much of anything, then he forced himself forward, over a fallen trunk, over the dead leaves and up to an old birch with strips of its papery skin hanging loose, and three claw marks gouged into its bark gone grey with age.

He rested the barrel against the trunk and stared along it. His mouth went dry for he’d thought himself still many yards from his camp, yet there was his tent sagging between its poles, his bag of supplies dangling from a rope, his pack slumped against a tree like a dead man. Nothing moved. He bent forward and listened. A noise on the edge of his hearing. The air singing like a wire pulled tight. He flexed his finger over the trigger then touched the greasy metal and brought his eye down level with the sight.

Nothing. Just the woods, and a wisp of smoke from the fire under his pot of beans, and the flap of his tent hanging limp, and he cursed himself for not having bought himself a dog, for being such a fool, and he was just lifting his head away from the gun when he saw it: a shadow but not, a swarm of insects but not, not swirling, not dipping against the breeze but a buzzing glinting thing like thousands of small hard bodies come together and rising up in the dull shape of a man and by god, it smelled of something foul, and where a face should have been was nothing, but still it shifted as though to look at him and he ran, fast and heedless of where he might end up, ran like the devil himself was after him.

* * *

The sun had shifted across the hills. Not much lower, because at this time of year it went down like a pebble skipping across a pond and, before you knew it, it was up again and the sky had grown no darker than it would in early evening down south. A man without a means to tell the time was a man lost out here, and whenever Ingram made camp he’d taken to whittling a stick, and jamming it hard into the earth, and laying another along its shadow before letting himself sleep so that when he woke he’d know if five minutes had passed or five hours.

But where was his camp now? His chest burned from running and he hunched over. His knees ached, his face smarted from scratches or mosquito bites, he couldn’t say which, and the thought of mosquitoes made him wince. That thing. Whatever the hell that thing was. Rising up. Turning toward him. Like he’d summoned it up with his whoop of joy.

He let himself consider not going back. Everything would be lost. His tent, his pan and shovel, his ax, even his gun that he’d dropped as he ran. He’d have only the nugget in his pocket to show for all it had cost him to get here, and sooner or later another man would find gold where he had, and that man would get rich from it.