by Carol McMillan
Lydia Walker had grown tired of her husband’s lack of enthusiasm for increasing their fortune. Despite her delicate appearance, she slowly took over what was generally considered to be ‘men’s business.’ The bank had grown accustomed to her being the family member most apt to make deposits and withdrawals to the Walker account. Not only did Josiah not complain about his wife’s increasing control over their finances, he scarcely noticed. Josiah had become disenchanted with the harsh materialism of the timber industry, and also with the increasing number of businessmen arriving in his precious Pacific Northwest, determined to milk every available resource for every last penny they could find.
Although he adored Lydia with every fiber of his being, Josiah was frustrated with his inability to please his wife. After keeping her dressed in the latest fashions—not a small accomplishment on the western frontier—and making certain they attended all the cultural events possible, still, she had complained of the city life and had requested a move. Abandoning his beloved home in town, Josiah purchased a large estate outside the city. Their relationship had improved with the move, especially when they were soon blessed with the birth of a son, Josiah Walker, Jr., an heir to Josiah senior’s legacy. Soon, however, Lydia began leaving most of the childcare to a young, immigrant nanny they hired. The family had little unity, and Josiah found himself, once again, increasingly depressed. Throwing himself headlong into the completion of the town mansion, he tried to suppress a longing for the idealized year he remembered with the Alaskan Natives. Eventually Lydia encouraged him to make a trip north, to revisit his native friends and re-establish old contacts. Heartened at the prospect, Josiah organized a trip, and in early spring he left his family for a third trip north.
Workmen at the downtown building watched the small vessel steam its way out of the bay. Finally, they could drop the pretense of enjoying working for Josiah Walker. With limited communication, it had taken many months for the information to reach them, but the elders of their community had sent word that a shame pole was being carved for Josiah. Apparently, the wolf that was now stuffed and standing on display downstairs in the building had been shot by Josiah a few years before, when he and William Seward had gone out for an afternoon of hunting animals for no reason other than a vain ego boost.
The wolf and her ancestors had been known to the village for decades. Much respected and revered, her family included human members of the Wolf Clan, for which she had been the living matriarch. One of the carvers working for Josiah on the home-cum-museum cringed upon hearing the news. Scarcely able to contain his welling tears, he mourned the loss of his clan mother.
Minutes after waving a scented handkerchief at her husband’s departing ship, Lydia erased the coy smile from her face and allowed stern determination to take over her countenance. Turning on an elegantly slippered heal, she headed directly toward the bank. Motherhood had not come naturally to Lydia; she had never felt the nurturing bond most women melted into upon first holding their newborn. Feeling guilty about not being a better mother, however, she wished to leave a legacy for her son. She wanted his inheritance to be safe from appropriation by any unsavory relations of Josiah’s that might appear, and even from Josiah himself.
As she turned the large brass knob on the bank’s imposing door, the odor of floor wax and damp woolen clothing ushered Lydia into the building.
“Could you see if Mr. Hansen is available, please?”
Theodore Hansen had founded the city’s first bank, beginning what would become a long lineage of bankers.
“Certainly, Mrs. Walker. I’m sure he will be delighted to see you.”
A few minutes later, Lydia was led into the bank president’s sizeable office. “Thank you for taking the time to see me, Mr. Hansen.”
“Of course, Mrs. Walker. What is it that I can do for you?”
“Well, as you may know, Mr. Walker has just left again for another trip to the Alaskan Territory. He has left me in charge of the continued construction of the building downtown. I’m afraid that he has allowed many accounts to become significantly in arrears! He just must have been so preoccupied with his upcoming journey that he’s failed to pay his workmen and many other bills that have now piled up. I will be forced to make quite a large withdrawal to alleviate the situation.”
“And how much cash would you like to withdraw?”
Lydia named a sum that caused the bankers skin to pale beneath his practiced neutral expression. “I’m afraid we don’t keep that amount of cash on hand, Mrs. Walker.”
“Oh, I don’t need it in cash. Some of the creditors don’t trust paper money anyway. I will be needing it in gold, please. Surely you have nuggets and such from those California miners who pass through, don’t you?”
“Well, yes, actually, we do. But that amount in gold will have considerable weight. It might be a burden to you.”
“I will be able to handle it, Mr. Hansen. Oh, and do you have any of those lovely new quarters they’ve been minting in Carson City? The ones with Miss Liberty seated? I hear there’s just a limited edition of those, and I’d love to have some.”
“Yes, they’ve sent our bank several hundred, I think.”
“Oh, lovely, I’ll take them all! I’ll return tomorrow to make the withdrawal. Thank you so much for your time!”
Bending her diminutive frame in a slight bow, Lydia made her way out the door and down the street to her waiting buggy. “Johnathan, we’ll have to return tomorrow, and you’ll need to bring several sturdy canvass bags.”
The Walker’s nanny had been seeing one of the Native carvers who was working on the museum. While feeding Little Josiah a few weeks ago, she had prattled on to Lydia about how the workmen were actually quite upset with their boss over some kind of hunting accident or something. They wanted to find ways to get back home, but didn’t have enough money for the steamship passage. She added that she probably shouldn’t be saying all that, being as how Mrs. Walker was his wife and all. Lydia assured her that the information would go no further, and that it was probably just idle workmen’s chatter anyway. The young woman thanked her, but said that Indians don’t chatter much, so they probably meant it.
Lydia stored that information, later using it to refine her developing plot. In the weeks that followed she had several devices built with rollers similar to those in the new kind of washing machine Josiah had bought for her. The rollers on her devices were made of stone, however, and they were adjustable, down to only the thinnest of gaps between them. She hid the devices in the barn, and had found several local Natives who had agreed to work on a project to be explained at a future date.
When Lydia returned to the bank, she was gratified to see piles of small sacks loaded on a table beside a balance scale. Mr. Hansen, himself, conducted the weighing and calculation of the value of each bag, until finally reaching the total Mrs. Walker had requested.
“And here are the quarters you asked for. I’m afraid you’ve wiped out our entire allotment.”
“Oh, I’m so very grateful, Mr. Hansen. It’s a pleasure doing business with such a considerate institution.”
Johnathan loaded the bags of nuggets into his larger canvas bags, carrying each out to the carriage where Lydia, clutching her embroidered bag now filled with all the bank’s 1870 Seated Liberty quarters, remained standing, keeping watch until everything was loaded. Returning to the estate, five Native men were waiting to help them unload the sacks into the barn. They promptly began the process that Lydia had been able to research and could now describe for them. Each nugget was repeatedly rolled thinner and thinner by adjusting the width between the metal rollers on the devices she’d had made. Days later the bags of nuggets had been transformed into paper-thin sheets of various sizes. The Natives had been sworn to secrecy about the tasks they’d performed, and paid well to maintain that secret. With sparce communication between whites and local Natives, Lydia felt her project would be safe from prying eyes and ears.
The workmen loaded the gold back into the carriage again, this time in flat boxes. Lydia drove herself back into town, wanting as few people as possible to have any idea what was going on. Driving to the back entrance to the museum, the Native carvers greeted her and carried each box up to the top of the grand staircase, where a huge dome had just been completed.
“Paint each section with adhesive, as I showed you, then press the gold foil. Try to make the pieces fit together as much as you can. Start at the center of the dome and work out till you run out of gold. The weight should be distributed evenly enough that it will hold. When you’ve finished, you will construct the second dome, just below the first. When the second dome is completed, you may go to the bank. They have cash waiting for each one of you; enough to more than pay for your return trip home. You will be extremely well rewarded for your workmanship and your secrecy in this matter.”
The men nodded. Lydia knew they were proud of their craftsmanship, and that the work would be done to the highest standards. With their return north, there would be little chance of word leaking out.
Lydia headed downstairs. She had a key to a small basement room, merely a closet off a slightly larger room. Being a limited edition, she knew her coins would have great value by the time Josiah, Jr., would need to cash them in. She’d leave him a map and an explanation for both treasures when she wrote out her will, which she’d been meaning to do since his birth. Even if someone discovered the false dome, she doubted anyone would find these coins in the back of the basement. Settling the bag onto the top shelf, Lydia turned to leave. Suddenly the walls began to shake. A loud moaning sounded throughout the building. Stones began falling, and the ceiling of the room right outside the closet collapsed, sealing Lydia’s fate as she vainly rattled the door, already choking on the dust-filled air inside the small space.
The Museum cleared her non-existent throat. No one was going to cheat Josiah and get away with it, if she had any say about it. The workmen wondered at the earthquake, but the dome remained intact, so they set about their assignments. While each man worked, he was already visualizing a return to his homeland of giant cedars.
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