May 18, 2009

The Hot Cake Kid

The following story comes from Robert N. De Armond's book, “Stroller” White: Klondike Newsman, Lynn Canal Publishing, 1989.


A recent mail brought the Stroller a letter from far off Australia. It was signed by one J. H. P. Smythe who was inquiring about his brother, Henry William Otis Smythe. The latter, according to his brother, was a baker by trade, had started for the Klondike early in 1898, and had written home but once since then. The name Smythe failed to stir up so much as a tinkle under the Stroller's bonnet and he was about to drop the letter into the wastebasket when a postscript caught his eye:

"My brother said in his letter that he was sometimes known around Skagway as the Hot Cake Kid."

The Stroller's memory picked up with that and began to hit on all of its cylinders as it spun back over the years. The Hot Cake Kid! Of course he knew the Hot Cake Kid, and so did a lot of others in the North, many of them to their sorrow. He was one of hundreds of Australians who landed in Skagway in the year 1898 enroute to the Klondike. And the Australians were reckoned "easy pickins" by Captain Jefferson Randolph Smith and his crowd, who were picking everything pickable in Skagway at that time, because they were all anxious to get maps of the Klondike country so they could see where they were going. No maps of the Klondike existed at that time, but the Australians did not know this and they were directed to a "specialty store" just around the corner and told they might find maps there. The "store" had a specialty, but it wasn't maps, and what happened when a trusting Australian or anybody else entered the place is another story. Usually he came out on his ear a few minutes later and with a warning that he should never again start anything just because he had made a bad guess as to which shell concealed the pea.

Captain Smith employed steerers to direct likely customers to the place, any customer being considered "likely" who had money in his pocket. So it was quite natural that Smith, who was known as Soapy, should employ Smythe, who soon became known as the Hot Cake Kid because that is about all he lived on. Smythe's countrymen were so pleased to find a fellow kangaroo who knew the ropes that they put themselves wholly in his hands, and he took them to where their chances of getting out whole were slim indeed.

Smythe worked on a percentage basis but Smith always had a plausible reason for postponing payday and all the Kid ever got were orders on the Pack Train Restaurant, signed by Soapy and saying "Give him all the hot cakes he wants." In later years, the Hot Cake Kid told the Stroller that if he could collect the percentage due him he could "go back to Austrylia and buy a bloomin' 'ot cyke 'ouse."

But the Hot Cake Kid did not return to Australia, then or ever. After the late Soapy Smith had been laid away, his picking days ended, and his crowd had been dispersed or jailed, Hot Cake went on to Dawson where his skill as a steerer of easy marks found no market at all. In fact, his reception there was extremely cool. Many of his Skagway victims were then in Dawson and some of them had put two and two together. In consequence, when Hot Cake applied for membership in the Sons of the Kangaroo, a fraternal organization then very active in the Klondike, he was overwhelmingly blackballed. He thereupon took to denying his nativity and claiming to have been born and raised in Arkansas, but that also was of short duration. The Amalgamated Brotherhood of Possum Hunters, which also flourished in Dawson, put him through an examination and he described Arkansas as a strip of country joining Pennsylvania on the north and Puyallup on the south.

Thus, when the Stroller came across the Hot Cake Kid in Dawson, the latter was a social outcast, sleeping under the crap tables in the lowest rank of gambling houses and attempting to sustain himself on the soup furnished by those houses to their blackjack boosters. The ingredients of the soup were two gallons of water to one onion and while the resulting product was warming, it was short on nourishment and Hot Cake complained that he was dying of slow starvation. The Stroller took pity on him, staked him to a good square, and using his influence with the owner of the Old Soak Bunkhouse, got him a job as caretaker of the place. This was located, if the Stroller remembers correctly, on Second Avenue between Icicle and All Night Streets and while it advertised under the name Cosmopolitan Hotel it was more generally known by the nickname which derived from the class of patrons it catered to.

Several weeks earlier the owner, a faro dealer at the Monte Carlo, had appealed to the Stroller for advice and assistance because business had been falling off alarmingly at the Old Soak. The place was designed to accommodate a maximum number of patrons-four-bits per night, cash in advance, no refunds under any circumstances-and bunks were tiered four high around the single room. Each night the lower bunks were claimed first and customers who arrived late complained that, having been relieved of four-bits at the door, they couldn't climb to the heights and were forced to sleep on the floor. Many of them were taking their trade elsewhere. Upon learning this, the Stroller quickly put his inventive genius to work and devised a portable crane which easily lifted even the limpest and groggiest customer to the top bunk. The popularity of the Old Soak was restored. But the Hot Cake Kid, the Stroller regrets to say, proved a poor caretaker. Although he performed his other duties in a satisfactory manner, he would not oil the crane. Before long it was squealing and shrieking in every sheave and pinion whenever it was used, and since this was always late at night it was an annoyance to all of the people within a block. The thing was declared a nuisance and abated by an Order in Council at Ottawa and the Hot Cake Kid was fired.

It was then that he cleaned his fingernails, bought a white apron and started a bakery, and before long the sun of prosperity began to shine upon him. Flour was then commonly selling in Dawson at $8 for a fifty-pound sack, but an ice jam had backed up the river and flooded a warehouse in which one of the large mercantile companies had stored a hundred tons of flour. Hot Cake bought the lot at two-bits a sack, on jawbone. It proved to be only slightly damaged and when made into bread one small loaf sold for as much as an entire sack had cost. There was no doubt that the Hot Cake Kid knew the baker's trade. He had no trouble selling his product and by the time the entire hundred tons of flour had been worked up Hot Cake had to shovel away the money when he wanted fresh air. But as so often happens, his fancy lightly turned. He married a dancehall girl known as Flying Kate and only the restrictions of the law prevented his marrying three or four more at the same time. The girls realized, however, that he was not responsible for the law and they did not hold it against him but pitched in to give him what assistance they could in broadcasting his money. It was a business they understood and worked at with a will, and it was not long until Hot Cake's poke was empty. Mrs. Hot then headed south with a dancecaller who had hit seven times straight on the black and the other girls lost interest in him. And that is about all there is to the story of the Hot Cake Kid. The last time the Stroller heard, he was still around Dawson, making a living, or what passes for a living, by doing a little baking now and then, and still wearing the same old nickname although there are few in Dawson today who know how he came by it. The Stroller will send a copy of the paper containing this story to J. H. P. Smythe in Australia for whatever it may be worth to him, but he does not propose to write a letter to J. H. P. Smythe. The Stroller was never at any time very long on writing letters and he has been mighty short on it ever since one of his love letters was read in court.

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