BO HAD TWO FATHERS and no mothers, and after she got the fathers, she got a brother too. But not in the usual way.
* * *
HER TWO FATHERS were Jack Jackson and Arvid Ivorsen. They’d come to Alaska with the 1897 Klondike gold rush when they were young, a long time before they got Bo. The girl Jack was going to marry had died, and Arvid had just buried his mother, so they didn’t have any reason to stay where they were.
They were both extra big. Not just tall, not that beanpole tall, but that kind of massive tall, six four or six five, with huge, deep voices and powerful, big fists. And they were both blacksmiths, her two fathers. But those were the only ways they were the same.
Of course Bo figured out when she wasn’t too old that her family was not like any other family in Ballard Creek. The Eskimo children had mamas and papas, and grandmas and grandpas, and aunts and uncles and cousins.
“Do I have a mama?” she asked one day.
“Well, everyone has a mama,” said Jack. “But sometimes mamas don’t stick around, you know. Just walk off. Lots of animals like that.” He was quiet for a minute, trying to think of an animal that took off, didn’t hang around. “Turtles,” he said suddenly. “Where I come from, they got big turtles, lay their eggs in a hole, just walk away.”
Bo considered that. “Did my mama walk away?”
“Sure did,” said Jack, “and lucky for us, someone giving away babies. Just what me and Arvid needed.”
Bo knew about giving away babies. Gracie had given her baby girl, Evalina, to Big Jim and Dishoo, because they didn’t have any babies and Gracie had two and one was enough.
So that was enough of an answer for Bo when she was little.
* * *
JACK HAD A REAL NAME: Gideon. But when he came up north, he right away got the name Black Jack—because he was black, and a blacksmith besides, and his last name was Jackson. He liked that name fine because he didn’t like the name Gideon. Arvid was called Swede by nearly everyone, or Big Swede, because he was.
Everyone had nicknames in those Klondike days. It was very popular. Jack used to tell Bo some of the crazy names and how people got them, to make her laugh. Like Tin Kettle George and Slobbery Tom and Pete the Pig and Calamity Bill. The dance-hall girls all had nicknames too, Jack said, like Gold-Tooth Gertie and Rompin’ Rosie. Jack said nicknames were good for the girls’ business.
Bo called Jack Papa and she called Arvid Papa. No one remembered how she’d decided on Papa, but it was right about the time she learned to talk. She was too little to understand that nobody would know who she was talking to if they were both called the same thing, so that’s the way it stayed. Papa for both of them. And actually, somehow it didn’t get mixed up at all.
Jack and Arvid knew each other first because of the shirts.
After he got to the Circle Mines, Arvid got himself a sewing machine. His mama had taught him to sew, and he was good at it. He figured he could make good money sewing shirts for the men in his off time from blacksmithing. And he did. The dance-hall girls even got him to sew this and that for them, though Arvid said they were much fussier than the men.
When Jack came to work at the Circle diggings, he heard about the shirt maker. Right away, he looked for Arvid to sew him shirts because Jack was a big, big man. His arms were as big around as some women’s waists, and his neck was as big as some men’s legs. So he couldn’t just buy shirts from the trading post.
When he found Arvid sewing in a room in the back of the saloon, they both started to laugh because they didn’t very often see a man as big as themselves. Arvid, in fact, found he could make Jack’s shirts to the same measure as his own. Jack was happy that Arvid knew that big men needed some extra reinforcement at the seams, and that they needed a little extra room around the belly.
So that was how Arvid and Jack first met, and over the next twenty years, when they came across each other in this mining camp or that, they’d laugh about that first shirt, maybe play a game of cards, and sometimes they’d partner up on the blacksmithing when there was a big job that needed to be done fast.
When they got Bo, they were both working at the Rampart mine on the Yukon.
The gold rush was all over, and most of those thousands of early stampeders had quit the country when the big gold strikes played out.
Alaska was nearly empty again.
The stampeders left behind dozens of sad ghost towns—lonely stores with false fronts; abandoned old boats, paddle wheelers, rotting on sandbars; empty, echoing dance halls, their fancy oak floors and chandeliers thick with dust.
The ones who’d stayed, like the men at the Ram-part mine, like Arvid and Jack, just stayed because the life pleased them, and because they loved the country.
So there they were at the Rampart mine together, Jack cooking after the regular cook took off, and everyone glad about it, because Jack was better than good at cooking.
And glad because the cookshack was always spotless when Jack ran it, with little things that made it home-like—maybe flowers on the table in the summer or a cloth on the long table.
That was because Jack had been raised in the kitchen of a big house down South, where Mama Nancy was in charge of the meals and housekeeping. She taught Jack to cook and keep things nice when he was a boy. The way Arvid had been taught sewing. Both very useful things for fathers, Bo always thought.
It’d been a bad year at Rampart. The gold was all played out, and Kovich, who owned the mine, was going to give it up after cleanup. He’d been a fair man to work for, and all the men were sorry he hadn’t done well.
Rampart would be another ghost town.
All the miners at Rampart would be going out after cleanup. Some would take the boat upriver to Whitehorse so they could get the train and go down to the inland passageway to Seattle and home. They’d leave the country, and maybe they’d come back, and maybe they wouldn’t.
Some of the men were headed to new diggings here and there. The mining on the Koyukuk was said to be looking good. Jack was going to the Koyukuk camp on the next steamboat going down the Yukon, and so was Arvid.
And that was why they got Bo. Because everyone in the camp knew they were headed downriver to Nulato. Everyone, including Mean Millie.
Jack just couldn’t get over how amazing it all was. If one tiny thing had been different, it wouldn’t have happened. If they hadn’t had to go to Nulato to wait for a scow going up the Koyukuk, if Arvid hadn’t been standing outside when Mean Millie was getting on the steamboat, they wouldn’t have had Bo. Just the littlest thing could change a life, he said, like someone bending down to tie a shoelace or someone getting a splinter. Little things that make other things happen. He called it thinking backwards.
Bo liked to think backwards like that a lot. “If I hadn’t spilled my cocoa at breakfast, and if I hadn’t taken so long to find the mop to clean it up, I wouldn’t have been in the cookshack when the moose came to the window, and I wouldn’t have seen him.” The trouble was knowing when to stop. You could go backwards forever, like if there was no cookshack or no mining camp or if she’d never been born.
It could get really silly after a while.
Text copyright © 2013 by Kirkpatrick Hill
Illustrations copyright © 2013 by LeUyen Pham