The Perilous Journey Begins – Chapter 5

The Perilous Journey Begins Chapter 5

Sitka, Alaska
October 18, 1867

Roshan Kuznetsov, stinking of skinned sea otter and three months of unwashed tromping through the rainforests and waterways of Baranov Island, loitered unreasonably close to the polished double-B-flat tuba. The distorted reflection of his bearded, unwashed face just beneath the flared bell of the tuba amused him, and reminded him that he had once again returned safely from the wilderness of bear and spruce to the booming metropolis of New Archangel. When he tired of playing with his reflection, he switched his attention to the man holding the heavy instrument. He found the dark blue uniform, the odd hat with no flaps for the ears, the golden-fringed epaulets, and polished knee-high black boots quite amusing. Roshan swung behind the man to investigate the neatly-trimmed back of his head, and then continued around to his other side where another man stood at attention brandishing a shiny trombone.

After obeying the earlier command to stand at attention, the tubaist could no longer remain still or silent. He broke ranks to confront Roshan. “Do you mind stepping away, sir? I have to play in a few minutes, and I need the time to catch my breath.”

This surprised Roshan. “I speak of sometime English. Do you speak the Russian?”

This exasperated the tubaist. “I certainly do not. Now please step away.”

Roshan persisted because he had not yet completed his inspection. “You must sorry me, but I still have much to find of your tuba. I must share with you I want to play the tuba when boy, but my parents did have not the wealth to afford of a large thing. There is also problem of finding a tuba for to buy, but is not of the story.”

“Very sad, and I’m very sorry your parents could not afford a tuba, but could you please just move away? Your stench is truly suffocating. I fear I won’t be able to breathe when we begin playing.”

“My stench? What is stench? This is new word I have not to hear.”

The trombonist broke ranks as well, and held his nose while addressing Roshan. “It means you stink. And frankly, my friend, I’ve never smelled such a stink, not even on the farm back in Missouri.”

Roshan grinned. “Yes, I know what is stink. You cannot take the breathing because stink is too good for you. But I do not know the stink—I mean ‘stench’ because I should practice the new English word you have told of me—because I do not smell it any more after many months in the forest looking for the otter pelts.”

The tubaist attempted to regain the conversation. “Yes, I think we have all agreed you stink, so please move away as quickly as possible. I’m beginning to feel light headed for lack of fresh air.”

Roshan nodded agreeably. “Yes, I would please to move, but first you must answer a question of confusion to me.”

The trombonist held his entire hand over his nose. “Yes, yes, but please ask your question quickly. I do not think I will last much longer.”

“Good. Then the question I ask,” Roshan paused to gesture expansively with his arm, “is what is it doing this day in New Archangel, and why do a tuba and a trombone in blue pants and many other instruments I do not understand the names stand in front of the Baranov Castle three months before now stand on this place I am now from the trees?”

The tubaist had hoped for an easy question, but it took him several seconds to sort out the jumble of words. “You haven’t heard? How is this possible?”

Roshan dropped his arm and frowned. “There is something to hear of the possible?”

The trombonist answered on behalf of the tubaist. “This town and all of Alaska belong to the United States of America now. The Russians sold the territory last April, and today is the day we take down the Russian flag and raise the stars and stripes.”

Roshan sputtered, “The stripes of stars?”

The tubaist corrected, “The stars and stripes. The American flag!”

Roshan took off his ushanka and kneaded the soft otter fur between his fingers. “How possible is this? What of my trade of the otter furs if the American stripes are in the air because the Russian flag is not?”

The trombonist began gasping for fresh air. “Listen here. We answered your question, now you’re supposed to step away. That was the deal.”

Roshan took a step back, but the stink persisted. “That is a deal? But I do not this belief it is true. How can Russia sell the all of Alaska? It is too much to understand in a short day.”

The tubaist continued, “Your confusion is not our problem my stinky fellow, now move away like you promised.”

Roshan dropped his chin and walked away, but not because the tubaist and trombonist had told him to. He walked away in disbelief because Russia had sold Alaska. He muttered in Russian, “This is not possible. How could this be? Trapping sea otter has been my life for more than 20 years. What will I do when the Americans are in charge? Will they allow me to continue my work? Will they allow me to stay in New Archangel at all? What if they ask me to leave? What then? What will I do? What will I do?”

Roshan ambled sadly away from Castle Hill, mumbling incessantly of his loss. The sounds of the U.S. Army band playing the Star Spangled Banner echoed off the wood buildings to either side. He glanced back, and the stars and stripes of the American flag fluttered into his view above Baranov’s Castle. Roshan watched briefly before resuming his mumbling walk.

Roshan Kuznetsov, still stinking of skinned sea otter and three months of unwashed tromping through the rainforests and waterways of Baranov Island, marched angrily up the weathered wood steps and across the weathered wood porch into the gable-roofed-wood-sided headquarters of the Russian-American Company to demand answers of Prince Dmitri Petrovich Maksutov, the current and—if the accusations of the tubaist and trombonist were true—last chief manager of the company and last governor of Alaska. A rear admiral in the Russian Imperial Navy, and a hero of the Battle of Sinope in the Crimean War, Prince Maksutov had proved reasonable in past encounters. Roshan prayed that the regrettable events of the last few months had not made him less affable as he passed by the ornate desk with the Prince’s flamboyantly-attired assistant sitting in an equally-flamboyant cushioned chair just behind. The assistant stood immediately and chased Roshan into Maksutov’s office, but failed to stop the determined trapper of otter.

The assistant spoke from behind Roshan. “My deepest apologies sir, but I could not stop this smelly man from entering your office unannounced. He has no appointment.”

Maksutov, balding with luxurious moustache and sideburns framing a naked chin, looked up from a box partially packed with books and papers. “Let Roshan Kuznetsov in. He never has an appointment when he comes here.”

Roshan snatched his ushanka and swept it away in a wide arc as he bowed at the waist; a puff of stench wafted across the Prince’s desk. “Thank you my grace. It is always a pleasure to meet you in your luxurious office.”

Maksutov pressed his hands down on the cluttered desk separating him from Roshan. “Roshan, stop. We both know you want something and take no pleasure in coming here. And, as usual, you smell of dead otter and other smells I can only guess at. Please come to the point before I am suffocated by your presence.”

Roshan restored the stinky ushanka to his unwashed head. “Then I shall move directly to my complaint. I was just told by two very reliable individuals that Russia has sold all of Alaska to the Americans. At first I thought this impossible. Who would be so foolish as to commit an act of such unthinkable stupidity? But then I realized both individuals who stood in front of me were in fact Americans, and what they were telling me could be true. I then said to myself, there is only one way to find out what is the truth: to speak directly to Prince Dmitri Petrovich Maksutov, chief manager of the Russian-American Company and Governor of Alaska. There you have it. This is a summary of my complaint.”

Maksutov gestured toward a large samovar, well maintained but surprisingly unadorned (considering the lofty credentials of its owner), on a table near a tall double-hung window. “Although I hate to suggest a reason for you to reside in my office longer than necessary, would you care for some tea?”

Roshan glanced around until he found a large baroque chair painted in gold. He dragged the chair into position in front of Maksutov’s desk and plopped into the crimson-red cushions. “Yes, I will drink tea while I listen to your answer.”

Maksutov positioned a cup beneath the samovar’s polished spout and opened the valve to pour some hot tea. “Sugar?”

Roshan scooted forward. “You have sugar? I have not tasted sugar for two months. Yes, I will have two spoonfuls of sugar.”

Maksutov balanced the cup on a dainty saucer, handed the tea to Roshan, and sat behind the desk. He picked up some papers then set them down again before speaking. “As I think you know, Roshan, the fur trade is not as good as it used to be. It is costing Mother Russia far more than it is worth to maintain Sitka. It has simply become a very expensive proposition, one which we can no longer afford.”

Roshan gulped some of the overly-sweet tea. “Yes, the otters are not as numerous as they once were, but they will return again soon. I am sure of it.”

“The otters are no longer numerous because of men like you, Roshan.”

“It is my passion to trap the otters. I cannot help it if I am good at it.”

Maksutov leaned back in his chair and clasped his hands. “Wishful thinking my friend, but there is another problem you should consider.”

Roshan slurped the last of the tea and set the saucer and cup on top of a pile of documents at the front of Maksutov’s desk. “Are there not problems enough already?”

“The Tsar has larger concerns than either one of us can truly understand or appreciate.”

“Tsar Alexander has concerns of Alaska?”

“Yes. He worries the British may simply take Alaska from Russia without any compensation whatsoever. At least the Americans are willing to pay a lot of money for the privilege to own it. Then they can suffer the cost of maintaining it.”

Roshan slumped in the chair and then sprung to a rigid sitting position. “But if the Americans own Alaska, what of the fur trade?”

Maksutov sighed. “I do not think the Americans have as much interest in otter pelts as we Russians do. But I have heard they are quite interested in gold. Maybe you should consider a change of profession.”

“A change of profession?”

“Yes, it is a thought. I heard there is gold in California. Or you could return to Russia and continue doing whatever it was you were doing before you left.”

Roshan’s arms fell to the sides of the chair. “I was not doing anything before I left Russia because there was nothing for me to do. I could not even find a tuba to play. This is why I travelled to Alaska in the first place.”

“You came to Alaska because you could not play the tuba?”

“No, I came to Alaska because I could not find anything to do in Russia. I just mention the problem with the tuba as one example of the many reasons I left Russia.”

Maksutov pressed his fingers together. “There is an American naval ship sailing for San Francisco early in the morning. I believe it is called the USS Ossipee. If you wish, I could arrange passage for you. Captain Emmons is a personal friend of mine. I will compensate you this afternoon for the pelts you have delivered. This should provide you with more than enough money to begin a new life in California.”

“But where is this California?”

“It is to the south, my friend. And it is very large, possibly larger than Alaska. I doubt you will have any trouble finding it.”

Roshan stood and bowed. “Thank you Prince Dmitri Petrovich Maksutov. I appreciate the advice. But I must take some time to think on it. Such a momentous decision cannot be made in the blink of an eye.”

Maksutov stood as well. “Do not think on it too much, or you will miss the ship and your one chance for easy transport to California. You must let me know of your plans within the hour to allow sufficient time to make proper arrangements with the captain.”

Roshan bowed his head and reached across the desk and shook the hand of the last Governor of Alaska, then abruptly stomped out of the office. When Roshan had exited the building, the flamboyant assistant entered the office and immediately held his nose. He spoke to Maksutov between gasping breaths. “Would you like me to open a window?”

“No, do not open a window. Open them all. And when you have finished, take this chair outside and burn it. I don’t think even the Americans will want it in its current condition.”

The flamboyant assistant cringed. “Do you expect me to touch it?”

Maksutov gazed through the window. “Yes, I expect you to touch it. Now get to work. We still have much packing to finish before we forever leave this unforgiving land.”
♦ ♦ ♦
Roshan Kuznetsov, his back hunched over from the carefully-selected accouterments of his profession he thought might prove useful in the goldfields of California—or which he could not bring himself to part with because of an overwhelming sense of nostalgia—blundered through the muddy, narrow, meandering, log-and-timber-building-rimmed streets of Sitka at 5:27 in the morning on October 19th in the year 1867, a persistent southeasterly blowing dreary mist into his already saturated beard. He paused at an intersection of muddy streets to enjoy one last view of the Russian Orthodox Cathedral of Saint Michael the Archangel, rising magnificently from the mud in horizontal-wood-siding splendor at the end of the lane. He considered the idea of walking into the cathedral to pray for a safe and prosperous trip, but feared the priest might discover him and force him to attend confession. After deciding God did not require an extravagant building with a metal-clad dome and spire to justify a simple prayer, he crossed himself and prayed where he stood:

“My dearest Lord…especially in difficult times, of which we both agree there have been a few…you know I have sinned…yes, many times…alright, many, many times—more than I can possibly recount from memory standing in the rain and wind at this moment. But even so, I also know you are a forgiving Lord, and that it would please you if I were to experience a safe trip to California—a place I’m sure you know where it is even if I have not heard of it—and then to find only a little wealth after I get there so you would not have to spend as much of your precious time worrying about me.” Roshan adjusted the heavy load weighing down his shoulders before continuing. “And another thing Lord, something I have never shared with you, or anyone else, until this very moment when I am about to depart on a ship to only you know where, but I truly beg your forgiveness for killing so many—”

“So many what?”

Roshan turned and the swerving load of accouterments nearly knocked into the man standing behind him. “Father Dmitri. I did not know you stood right behind me or I would have taken more care when I turned around.”

“Do not worry about it Roshan. So many what?”

“So many what? Oh, yes. So many what, you ask? Why, I was merely talking to myself about something which matters very little now because there are many reasons to not worry about thinking of it ever again.”

“I see. It sounded like you were praying. Maybe we should walk over to the cathedral and I can hear your confession.”

“I would like nothing better than to confess my sins to you this very morning, Father, but unfortunately I am late for the ship that will take me to California, so I must beg your forgiveness and hurry on my way.”

“I see. Then I will pray for a safe trip.”

“Thank you, Father.”

“But as to the wealth, we must both leave it in God’s hands.”

Roshan jumped to raise the load higher on his shoulders. “Why, thank you Father. I did not know you stood next to me for so long.”

“I heard your entire prayer. And Roshan…”

“Yes, Father Dmitri.”

“True wealth is not always what you think.”

“Yes, Father Dmitri.”

“Now on your way, or you will miss the ship and your new adventure in California. And one last thing Roshan.”

“Yes, Father?”

“Take a bath when you find the time. You smell like a rotting beaver.”

“Yes, Father Dmitri. I will.”

After shaking hands with Father Dmitri, Roshan continued his march to the boat yards where he hoped to find the ship named…the ship named…named…well…he could not remember the name of the ship. But, he reasoned as he tromped along, how hard could it be to find a large American ship? When he arrived at the end of a wharf jutting favorably above the incoming tide, he discovered three large ships anchored in the bay. He could not even guess which one had the name he could not remember. Then he realized an important detail: even if he had remembered the name of the ship, he had no way to get out to it anyway. He dumped the load from his back into three separate piles, one for each ship, sat on the largest, and waited. He did not wait long. At precisely 6:00 am, a small boat with seven sailors in blue uniforms and peculiar hats—six oarsmen and one boatswain with an elegantly manicured moustache standing near the bow—arrived below the wharf. Roshan stood, stretched his back, sauntered to the edge of the dock, and peered down on the man with the moustache. The man peered up at Roshan and curved his hands around the moustache to form a small megaphone and yelled:

“Are you Rushing Koozesstough?”

“No, I am Roshan Kuznetsov. I belief you have heard for the wrong man who is not standing in the here.”

The boatswain removed a crumpled piece of paper from his pocket, unfolded it, and yelled, “Are you Roshing Kooznetasoov?”

“No, you are still speaking of a person I have no idea.”

The boatswain produced a pair of reading glasses, shoved them on his nose, and read the words on the piece of paper again. “Are your Rooshan Kooznetsove?”

This articulation of Roshan’s name proved close enough. “Yes, I am Roshan Kuznetsov. Why do you ask?”

The boatswain folded the paper and stuffed it into the same pocket. “I have orders to lighter you to the USS Ossipee.”

This delighted Roshan. “You know which ship is the one you just said the name of which I cannot remember?”

“What did you say?”

“You know of the ship?”

The boatswain pointed at a sleek, wood-hulled, three-masted, steam-powered, sloop of war floating serenely in the deeper waters of the bay. “The USS Ossipee is the one in the middle.”

Roshan decided further conversation was not necessary. “Do not worry of more answer than you have said. I bring my things down to beach and we can move in small ship to the one with the name I cannot remember even when Prince Dmitri Petrovich Maksutov told me of it in his office just before today and you told me of it again in the morning.”

The boatswain sent two men to help Roshan transfer his gear into the boat. To everyone’s surprise, they loaded the gear with extraordinary haste. When Roshan had settled into the boat, stinking even more of skinned sea otter and three months of unwashed tromping through the rainforests and waterways of Baranov Island than he had in Maksutov’s office because another full day had passed, the boatswain (a seasoned man of great experience) sucked in an enormous breath of Roshan’s stink and nearly gagged his breakfast over the gunwale. He ordered the six sailors under his command to shove off immediately and then to row as if their lives depended on it. This created a strong breeze which provided temporary relief. After the boat moored alongside the USS Ossipee, the boatswain and the six sailors escorted Roshan and his gear up the narrow ships ladder with astonishing efficiency.

The boatswain quickly issued an order to two of the oarsmen. “Please escort Mr. Rooshin Koosetoss and his gear below decks and find him quarters with the U.S. Army Band.”

When Roshan and his gear and the two oarsmen arrived below decks, the tubaist and the trombonist were playing cards and drinking coffee. The tubaist stiffened and sniffed the air. “Three please. Do you smell something? It smells like the same stink we smelled at the flag ceremony. How is it possible?”

The trombonist dealt three cards from the deck. “Good Lord! It is the same stink. I’ll never forget that smell as long as I live.”

Roshan rushed to the sides of the tubaist and trombonist and slapped his arms around their shoulders, sending a shower of playing cards into the air and spilling cups of coffee across the table. “It is my new friends of America! We see ourselves once again, and I must speak to you I have not forgotten the new English word you told of me at the changing flags to America. The word you are wishing to tell is ‘stench.’ I have stench you do not forget because you live as long as you forget. But I see better news for you than the stink of my stench. Today, I travel with you on the big ship all the way to California, even when I do not know where California have been and I cannot remember the name of ship. We have much time to find many new English words to speak with when my English is the best you can believe.”

The trombonist held his nose, then exclaimed to the tubaist, “Oh lucky day.”

Rich Ritter discovered a passion for writing during his tumultuous high school years. This zeal was consumed by technical writing during his lifelong profession as an architect until the age of 49, when he began work on his first novel. Ritter was born in Iowa, raised in the social cauldron of Southern California, completed his architecture degree (Cal Poly SLO) in Denmark, and is a 40-year Alaska resident.