John Barleycorn HTML version
After the laundry my sister and her husband grubstaked me into the Klondike. It was the
first gold rush into that region, the early fall rush of 1897. I was twenty-one years old,
and in splendid physical condition. I remember, at the end of the twenty-eight- mile
portage across Chilcoot from Dyea Beach to Lake Linderman, I was packing up with the
Indians and out-packing many an Indian. The last pack into Linderman was three miles. I
back-tripped it four times a day, and on each forward trip carried one hundred and fifty
pounds. This means that over the worst trails I daily travelled twenty-four miles, twelve
of which were under a burden of one hundred and fifty pounds.
Yes, I had let career go hang, and was on the adventure-path again in quest of fortune.
And of course, on the adventure-path, I met John Barleycorn. Here were the chesty men
again, rovers and adventurers, and while they didn't mind a grub famine, whisky they
could not do without. Whisky went over the trail, while the flour lay cached and
untouched by the trail-side.
As good fortune would have it, the three men in my party were not drinkers. Therefore I
didn't drink save on rare occasions and disgracefully when with other men. In my
personal medicine chest was a quart of whisky. I never drew the cork till six months
afterward, in a lonely camp, where, without anaesthetics, a doctor was compelled to
operate on a man. The doctor and the patient emptied my bottle between them and then
proceeded to the operation.
Back in California a year later, recovering from scurvy, I found that my father was dead
and that I was the head and the sole bread-winner of a household. When I state that I had
passed coal on a steamship from Behring Sea to British Columbia, and travelled in the
steerage from there to San Francisco, it will be understood that I brought nothing back
from the Klondike but my scurvy.
Times were hard. Work of any sort was difficult to get. And work of any sort was what I
had to take, for I was still an unskilled labourer. I had no thought of career. That was over
and done with. I had to find food for two mouths beside my own and keep a roof over our
heads--yes, and buy a winter suit, my one suit being decidedly summery. I had to get
some sort of work immediately. After that, when I had caught my breath, I might think
about my future.
Unskilled labour is the first to feel the slackness of hard times, and I had no trades save
those of sailor and laundryman. With my new responsibilities I didn't dare go to sea, and
I failed to find a job at laundrying. I failed to find a job at anything. I had my name down
in five employment bureaux. I advertised in three newspapers. I sought out the few
friends I knew who might be able to get me work; but they were either uninterested or
unable to find anything for me.