One of the many iconic figures in Dawson City was Father William Judge, the “Saint of Dawson City”. Judge was a fairly prominent secondary character in my first draft. Since he didn’t make it to the final book, I thought he at least deserved some attention in here.
Ben’s way of thinking there were three categories of miners. First were the ones with sturdy, well-kept packs and sleds who came all this way because their successful businesses or comfortable lives had bored them to the point that they craved risk. Many of those men had turned back before they could make any kind of fortune. The cold, the endless rock, and the sheer loneliness of it all hadn’t been in their plans.
The second group, the young scrappers, came because they were hungry for adventure and riches, and they were at a place in their lives where they had nothing to lose. They started out with the strength of ten older men, set on making a name for themselves if nothing else, but they soon discovered the Klondike didn’t offer a lot of those.
They hung onto their eagerness as long as they could, but if success was elusive, they usually joined the third group of men. Those men drifted like shadows over the trails, laboured ceaselessly in the gold fields’ muck, and existed in near invisibility until they faded away to nothing at all.
Homer Gandy was in the last group. When Ben caught a glimpse of him, squatting over a pan, he stopped on the path, keeping a safe distance. The narrow slits of Homer’s eyes were a deep red, his skin a dirty grey, and despite his youth he was hunched over like an old man.
“Hiya Homer. Sorry to see you looking so under the weather.”
Homer acknowledged the truth with a low groan. “It’s my head. Can’t barely move it hurts so bad. And I’ve had the shits for days. Burns like hell.”
“Lying down inside, hotter than hell. Hasn’t gotten up for a couple of days now.”
Ben had a bad feeling about that. “We need to get you boys healthy,” he said. “Go see Dr. Riniger today.”
“Can’t leave the mine.”
It was a typical response. Gold fever was a sickness unto itself.
“You got no choice, Homer. Sounds like you two might have typhoid. If you stay out here you’ll die and you’ll get a lot of other folks sick. Can’t let that happen. I’ll send up a wagon for Red in a bit, and you ride down with him. We’ll watch your claim while you’re gone. No need to worry. That sit all right with you?”
The miner hesitated, but Ben thought that was just from the fever messing with his brain. Homer wouldn’t fight him on this.
“Awright,” he drawled. “Can’t find much gold if I’m dead, can I?” He tried to laugh at his own joke but ended up doubled over, coughing. When he’d caught his breath he nodded weakly. “Yeah. Me and Red’ll take your wagon.”
Once they were inside the city limits, Ben stabled his horse at Fort Herchmer, then he and Keitl headed towards the sound of hammering, sticking to the boardwalk to avoid the muck of the road whenever possible. Of the three men working on the roof of the town’s new hospital, Ben spotted the man in charge. The heavy gold crucifix around his neck picked up the glint of the sun as his hammer swung.
“Hello, Father,” Ben called from the bottom of the ladder.
“Ah, Constable Turner.” Father William Judge tucked his hammer in his belt and started down, leaving the other men to continue with the work. “How are you today?”
Ben waved a hand. “Don’t stop on my behalf. I think there’s more rain coming.”
As he’d expected, the Jesuit priest climbed down anyway. “Patching the roof. A never ending job,” he said between coughs. “And though the rain falls from heaven, it does no good to have it falling on so many ill folks inside.”
“You should take better care of yourself, Father. People need you.”
“As they need you. Tell me, Constable Turner, did you pause in your day to consider your own health? We are two of a kind, are we not? The difference is that I carry a cross and you carry a pistol. We are here for the same purpose, except you are here to save lives, and I am here to save souls. Can you argue that point?”
Ben conceded with a smile. The fact that both he and the priest were on the constant lookout for sinners was a joke between them, but it was still a fact.
Father William Judge was a slight man with fragile health and dogged determination. Back in March of ’97, Judge—also known as the Saint of Dawson City—had driven his one-dog sled, loaded with medical supplies and food, through fifty miles of deep snow between Fortymile and Dawson. He adopted the town as his parish and ran a small hospital in a tent until he built St. Mary’s Hospital, one of two he built in one year. He picked grass from a nearby hill and used it in the cots he made for the patients, and from that same hill he plucked herbs for medicines. When he built his church, he spent hours lovingly carving the altar with his pen knife. His devotion to God and the people of Dawson showed in everything the priest did.
One night, in his rush to get to a patient in need, the priest forgot to douse the church candle. As he knelt, praying in the hospital by the patient’s side, he heard a roar and rushed outside to see the trouble, where he discovered his church was engulfed in flames. Everyone in the town ran to help, but there was nothing they could do. Father Judge had stared up at the inferno, eyes streaming from the smoke, his lips moving in prayer.
In the morning, as soon as the ashes were cleared and the volunteers thanked, the Lord helped Father Judge find a better location so he could build again. By then the cost of bringing timber to the city had risen dramatically, but Judge was set on building an even larger, more accommodating building this time. The impossible cost was set at $30,000, and donations were few and far between. The story went that one of Dawson’s wealthiest men, Big Alex McDonald, the Nova Scotian giant some called the King of the Klondike had come to speak with the priest some days later. The brawny Nova Scotian had stood with the little priest, blocking the boardwalk and furiously rubbing his chin while he listened to Judge’s plans. McDonald was a shrewd businessman whose first reaction to any proposal was usually ‘no’. But there was something about Father Judge that brought out the best in men, from the millionaires to the poor wretches who had just about given up. He even roused some who spent days and nights in the saloon, dragging them outside to squint against the light of day then giving them hammer or saw. Such was his personality that the King of the Klondike gave the priest even more money than he needed. When the supplies arrived, every spare hand in Dawson City had helped with the construction, including the Mounties when they weren’t on duty.
“No rest for the weary, or so they say,” the priest said, polishing his spectacles with a cloth in his coat. “So much to tend to inside. More poor souls every day, you know, so many souls to save. The typhoid has hit them hard.”
“I’ll be sending more in later today, I’m afraid.”
Judge’s gaze was unnerving, but that was the way he always regarded people. As if he sought to unearth the deepest answer a man might be hiding. “Are there a lot?”
“Four or five. You know how it goes. They don’t want to stop working, so they try not to let us see them sick until they can’t hide it anymore.”
Judge pressed his palms together, held them under his chin. “They are such hard workers. So determined. It is a virtue, being so dedicated to one’s work.” He shook his head sadly. “If only they could use some of that wonderful energy to work for the kingdom of heaven. Imagine how many saints we would have!” He paused. “I wonder if I could ask something of you, Ben. It’s a bit of a touchy subject.”
“I wonder if you might speak with Ralph Stevens.”
Ben pictured Ralph easily. “Sure, if you’d like. What about?”
“His wife. She has come by a few times needing help.”
“Didn’t know he was married. Who is she?”
“I doubt you’d know her. She keeps to herself.” He frowned. “Once he’s into the drink he goes after her. But he won’t come to the church, and he won’t let me into his house. If you were to speak with him, he would have to listen.”
“He goes after her, you say?”
“Regularly. She’s here now, I’ve suggested she stay a night or two to recover in peace.”
“Don’t worry about it, Father. I’ll take care of it today.”
Judge scrutinized the clouds overhead. “Well, I suppose you’re right. I’d best get back to work, make sure this roof doesn’t leak.”
“I’ll try to come back to help later on tonight.”
Judge put a hand on the ladder. “Your help is always welcome, but you have your own work to do.”
Later that night, as Ben walked past the church in the pouring rain, he heard the sound of a shovel hitting wet ground, followed by a dry, hacking cough. Even in the dark he easily recognized the digger: the only feature interrupting the fair man’s plain black clothes was his white priest collar. The rain-soaked priest was bent over a mound of dirt, and a body was laid out on a cart beside him, covered by a tarp. Ben trudged into the churchyard and held out a hand for the shovel.
“You know other people can do this, right?” he asked, taking over. “Men with nothing better to do. You’re busy enough with everything else.”
Father William stood back, panting slightly and watching him work. “It’s all right.”
“You could at least have waited until the rain stopped.”
“The Lord certainly works in mysterious ways. I cannot understand why he would bless us with rain, considering all this mud.” Judge’s boot splashed onto the soggy road, and he slipped off his spectacles so he could dab sweat from his brow. “Though I can’t say it wouldn’t feel good to stand under a shower of cool, clean water right about now.”
“Maybe you can take a bath instead,” Ben suggested. “The river ain’t gonna stop rising anytime soon.”
“The police have it all in hand, I imagine,” Judge said, though his eyes questioned.
“We’ll be moving folks out of danger in the next week or so. Probably move back one street at a time, starting with Front.”
“That should irritate any number of shopkeepers.” Judge smiled faintly. “What about the men in the goldfields?”
“We’ve got an eye on them. They should be fine.”
“And all this water will bring on the mosquitoes, of course.”
Ben winced at the thought.
The priest held a kerchief over his mouth and coughed again. “This poor soul came in from the field today. Nobody seems to know who he was.”
Ben lifted the tarp and regarded the deceased, a skeletal young man, his face almost consumed by a ragged beard. Ben didn’t know him either, but he noticed Judge had spent time neatening the corpse’s long, scraggly mess of hair and tying it back.
the priest said sadly.
“His shirt’s pretty clean for a miner.”
“I couldn’t very well lay him to rest in the rags he wore when he came in.”
“Is it yours?”
“I have others.”
Ben finished the job, not bothering to argue. Anything he said would be refuted; he’d learned that right away. He’d come to accept that Judge’s self-proclaimed purpose in life was to sacrifice himself for everyone around him.
When the hole was deep enough, Judge removed the tarp then took the dead man’s ankles while Ben went to the shoulders. The body weighed practically nothing. The rain did what it could to clean the grime off the man’s skin while Father William said prayers, and once he’d uttered the final ‘Amen’, Ben got to work filling in the hole again.