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CHASING KLONDIKE DREAMS
by Marc Paul Kaplan
“Men were like wolves, they feed on each other.” —Tappan Adney, New York journalist, 1897
Nerves. Butterflies. More like locust chewed Jared’s guts. A throng of spectators, many Jared recognized from the Boston and Albany electric train ride from downtown, jostled and pushed for a clear Race organizers begged and prodded the crowd into tow lines the contestants could pass between. No wonder he was such a wreck facing at least three hours of running.
Jared was ready. Beyond ready. Apprehensive and twitching. Tom Burke, sprint champion from last year’s revived Olympic Games in Athens, scraped his foot across the dirt in front of the fourteen anxious men. The runners, including Jared, pressed against an imaginary barrier. Jared hadn’t taken a single step yet felt winded. And where the heck was Duffy? For once he could use his trainer’s prickly presence as a comfort.
“Jared.” Duffy’s rough, scratchy voice rose above the crowd’s noise. His face jutted into Jared’s view. “You ain’t gonna win your first race, laddie. Pace yourself like I told you. Just finish.”
A large busted nose, two ears permanently and unequally swollen, and ridges of scar tissue decorated Duffy’s features. The man’s battered face resembled a relief map of the Adirondacks. Rough. His personality matched.
But how could Jared compete with the predominantly tough Irishmen from New York and Boston who flexed and stretched their wiry bodies? He stood a head taller than the other runners poised in front of Metcalf’s Mill in the small hamlet of Ashland. His birds-eye view of his fellow competitors made him an awkward, vulnerable stork among falcons.
Previous words from Duffy echoed in his ears, “Your family gave you too damn much freedom. Made you wishy-washy.” He’d had all of Duffy he could handle. But then again, Duffy was the only one who had ever pushed Jared. Maybe the only one who cared.
“Hope you’re a better runner than a boxer,” Duffy rasped. “Ya got twenty-six miles in front of you. Goddammit, just finish.”
Jared had been doing roadwork for several years at Duffy’s insistence. And he’d taken runs of an hour or more with his Airedale, Brutus, on the farm during summers. But a marathon? This inaugural Boston Marathon on April 19, 1897? Shadows of doubt bit into Jared’s concentration. Hadn’t it been the trainer’s suggestion that Jared enter the race? Why did everyone push Jared to follow their own plans? The starter caught the runners’ attention. Too late to back out now.
“Go,” Burke hollered.
Jared shot forward at a sprint, then slowed as realization of the distance registered. Lanky strides kept him at the head of the tight pack all the way to South Framingham, where a large, boisterous crowd gathered. The pace remained easy, effortless and exhilarating. Jared’s mood lightened out of South Framingham as most of the other competitors fell behind the leaders.
A helpful strong wind pushed him onward. But dust from the dirt road, churned by the many accompanying bicyclists, irritated his lungs. Then Duffy appeared out of a murky cloud on a bike too large for the man’s stubby legs.
“I told you to pace yourself,” Duffy called, his crooked body hunched over the handlebars of the borrowed bicycle.
More cyclists swarmed around the runners, squeezing Duffy away from the contestants. His croaking calls faded into the bedlam of the spectators. Good. Duffy knew only how to criticize, never a compliment or word of encouragement. But his father and older brothers had offered even less. Jared was sick and tired of being browbeaten.
“You may have quick hands,” Duffy had once said about his fighting skills. “Good eyes, speed, long arms. Even endurance. But you ain’t got passion. No killer instinct.” Duffy had spit on the wooden floor of the gym, then noted Jared’s obvious distaste. “I’m the one cleans this place. I can spit if I want.”
Had it really been two years that the old man had served as Jared’s boxing coach at Yale? Jared’s boxing career had been less than sparkling. Did Duffy really care? Jared’s indecision, lack of aggression, and unrealistic idealism had limited his success in the ring. Though the simplicity and solitude of roadwork had filled some sort of personal vacuum. That was whenever Duffy on his darn bicycle hadn’t harangued him along the way.
* * *
Lush spring countryside blossomed in contrast to the nearby congestion of downtown Boston, now sixteen miles ahead. Jared’s body reacted efficiently, shifting into a soothing rhythm through the deceptive, gentle terrain. Maybe he could hang onto the front runners. Rise to the occasion. Not just finish, but place. Even win. The thought supplied a wave of energy, softening the edges of any growing physical discomfort.
The veteran Hamilton Gray and Harvard’s own Dick Grant bracketed him. Stride for stride they mirrored each other from Framingham to Natick. The leaders offered vague acknowledgment to the never-ending ovations of excited spectators lining the way. Jared couldn’t have cared less about supporting the dominance and prestige of his school, Yale, over Harvard. But he wouldn’t allow Grant, an arrogant Harvard gentleman-athlete, to beat a humble man of the soil like himself.
Then erratic gasps began to interrupt the consistency of his breathing. A hand-painted sign marked mile eleven on the far side of Wellesley. Not even halfway. An unusual heaviness in his legs and arms marked growing fatigue. Reality surfaced with a swelling tenderness under his right big toe.
The cheering of Wellesley coeds—“Grant! Grant! Rah for Harvard!”—provoked renewed effort. He stuck with Grant and Gray. But the period of cruising had ended. Pain registered with increasing persistence. His agitated mind wandered in search of distraction.
Maybe he’d teach. Jared loved learning, especially the current literature of Joseph Conrad, Kipling, George Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells. Though exposure to education and the real world had become unsettling. Even those authors wrote of aspects of society he couldn’t understand or justify. Too much ugliness, poverty and corruption. Conditions were changing too fast and not for the better. Why couldn’t he run as fast as the world now turned?
His father had a master plan for him. Required another year of general studies. Then the challenge of obtaining a Doctorate in Divinity. But to work in the service of the Lord, one needed a calling. Jared had yet to hear even a whisper from God.
Where was he headed in life? His reading had recently shifted to champions of the exploited working class—Henry George, Edward Bellamy and Henry Demarast Lloyd. And dropping out of Yale felt right. Something would work out. He knew one thing for sure. He had grown weary of old men telling him what to do.
* * *
Mile thirteen. Fast-forming blisters balanced the pain in both feet. He felt light-headed with a sore throat. Not a good combination. Aid stations provided unending water, but he had neither the desire nor time to swallow enough. Still he ran with Gray and Grant down the long hill from Wellesley to Newton Lower Falls.
Now another runner was closing fast. Jared knew who it was without looking—J.J. McDermott, the leathery little favorite and winner of last fall’s first New York Marathon. McDermott brushed past as the front-runners headed downhill.
“You went out too damn fast.” Duffy’s gasping voice came from a group of bicyclists. “All you gotta do is finish. Just finish.”
Jesus. The gruff old man either battered him with criticism or taunted him with his legacy of failures. He had caught the train from New Haven yesterday afternoon with the crotchety old man and shared a room at the Boston Athletic Association’s new quarters. Duffy’s snoring had kept Jared awake most of the night. Now every action of the old man brought irritation.
The road stretched forward. Hamilton Gray now faded, but Harvard’s Dick Grant gave chase after McDermott. Jared followed, focusing on a pinpoint of anger and pride. Couldn’t let that snob leave him behind. Nor let Duffy’s skepticism prove to be true.
But a tight web of exhaustion clogged muscle reactions. Rational thoughts no longer registered. Fragments bit into his consciousness. Any sense of efficient flow eluded him. Instead, a seductive, evil presence lurked along the roadway, sneering and screeching for him to quit. Why kill himself for a meaningless race someone else talked him into?
Jared turned back to his fellow runners. To his left, Grant’s body wobbled in erratic jerks. The racer toppled onto the rough street. He raised his head to beg the driver of a watering cart to pour moisture over his body. Jared slowed. Grant’s collapse caught him by surprise. But the Harvard man’s breakdown invigorated Jared. He staggered on, searching for energy and inspiration.
He struggled to regain a degree of rhythm and stumbled down another of the race course’s endless hills, feeling empty, dry and brittle. New pains stabbed his lower back. His kneecaps developed razor-sharp edges shooting slicing pain to the surrounding tissue.
Heat enveloped his body, fire licking his feet. His brain searched for diversion but found only the world’s worries. Why did he feel so useless? Why was he constantly harassed by the limited vision of annoying old men? Society’s messages radiated loud and clear within his head, no way to dislodge them. He couldn’t shut out his own troubling doomsday tidings and feelings.
Then, oh God, another hill. His leaden legs kept plodding. Just put one foot in front of the other. Physical, numbing agony pounded on the door of his mind. His legs kept moving without making any headway. A quick swipe at his forehead found no sweat. Too many miles left to be dehydrated. How did his mind still work with his body no longer connected?
Mile twenty. Words pounded upon him without mercy. Corruption, immorality, robber barons, poverty, Godlessness. He didn’t need the burdens of the world. His own suffering overwhelmed him now. Spectators leaned forward, farther and farther, their bodies now parallel to the roadway. His legs turned rubbery. The world tilted.
Jared grasped for something, anything of positive substance. And there before him rose the images of his father and brothers, and with them, the security and stability of the prosperous family farm in Ohio. He belonged with his flesh and blood. That hopeful life provided a siren song stronger than any false promise of progress. They would welcome him home with open arms. He could teach. Get a job in town. Work the harvests and take his turn tending the livestock with Brutus. Brutus, his faithful dog. Childhood companion. Maybe now he could even outrun the Airedale.
Then the world tipped at an angle inconsistent with reality. The pull of gravity released him. He sunk into a sucking whirlpool. Everything spun and tilted. Yet the safety and tranquility of his family remained a tantalizing vision before him. The dust that had filled his lungs now floated before his eyes, his cheek against the packed earth of the road.
“Get up,” Duffy called.
Where had the old man come from? Duffy was too sharp-edged, too confrontational. He didn’t belong on a farm.
“You’ve got to finish,” Duffy screamed. “Get up. Walk in if you have to.”
No. He’d go back to the farm rather than give the old trainer any more power over him. Love of his home qualified as passion, didn’t it? The dirt that now caressed his lips seemed little different from the soil of Ohio.
Overworked springs screeched as the wrought-iron bed resisted collapse. Crushing pressure from the beast upon her forced air from her lungs. Ripping agony between her legs blended into a world of bright, exploding flashes. Maggie made gasps sound like pleasure, not tortured wheezes. What else could she do after agreeing to accept this disgusting customer? The kerosene lamp on the adjacent end table rocked an obscene rhythm. Focus on anger, hatred. Couldn’t give in to the pain or the shame. Awareness of her vulnerability swallowed her whole.
The rocking increased. The bumpy mattress dug into her back. Opportunities to breathe were too short to provide relief to her constricted chest. Sweat—his or hers—burned her tightly closed eyes.
“Goot, huh?” the farmer grunted.
The words echoed, battering her like a physical force. And the huge Swede’s guttural groans rang louder and louder, howls evolving from proud bellows to out-of-control blubbering. The body above her muted her frantic panting, confirming her useless search for escape. The sounds, mournful to Maggie’s ears, would go unnoticed at the Prairie Flower. All she could do was listen to her sobs fade into whimpers.
She never should have agreed to such a monster. But $200? The unheard of amount had seduced her into this liaison. Dreams to escape this desperate life shredded. Temporary survival in a brothel had become a life sentence with no way out.
The farmer’s intense thrashing jerked to a stop. A brief, unweighted moment of release ended with a thud. The revolting animal sank on top of her. Her lungs collapsed under the load, breathing almost impossible. She was not yet twenty-one, too young to die, especially in such circumstances. The thought shocked her into a frantic clawing and biting attempt to surface.
An unexpected image of her mother appeared, her emaciated body crumpled on a shack’s dirt floor. The woman hadn’t died, she’d quit living. But Maggie wouldn’t give up so easily. She twisted, burrowing through layers of fat, finding daylight under his armpit. Maggie still lay trapped, a tiny bug crushed by a merciless giant’s foot. Humiliation smothered her fear of death.
This oaf had traveled all the way to St. Louis for sex. This three hundred-pound monster with his huge cock had probably slaughtered every whore in the surrounding states. Tears merged with sweat. The pain from her ripped inner lips now dominated all sensations. The damage was done. No new customers anytime soon.
What had happened to her control? To all the defenses she had constructed to avoid just this kind of event? She’d sworn never to be in this position, impaled helplessly to the bed of her profession.
The now snoring hulk lay inert, satiated. Perhaps she could squeeze herself free. One hand pushed against the bed for support and found something terrifying. Dampness soaked the sheets beneath her. Too much moisture. Blood? Lord help her.
She stretched her head and arm to the edge of the bed. His massive head rolled toward her, reintroducing the putrid stench of whiskey. Saliva bubbled in copious quantities from the corners of his thick-lipped mouth. Her stomach churned. Maggie gagged. Her body flexed into rigidity, then into spastic movement.
Involuntary convulsions gave her unexpected leverage. She lunged from beneath him, off the bed and hit the floor, landing on her shoulder. She struggled to her knees, dry heaving. Intense heat and a thick blanket of humidity—1897 the hottest spring on record. Maggie quivered on the floor, unable to regain her feet.
Crimson liquid flowed from between her legs. So much blood. Could she be seriously damaged? She might still die. Or did more than just her own life stream from her body? Did her unborn child have a prayer of surviving? Had this bastard destroyed that too, unrealistic though the very thought of a baby might be?
“Never again,” she gasped.
The familiar refrain ricocheted through her mind. Necessity had overwhelmed all her resolutions. She reached for a towel on the floor by the nightstand and pressed it between her legs. Pain continued to dominate her senses. She struggled upright and shrugged into her robe, compelled to cover her nakedness, afraid to take stock of her bruised body. Her body. One that had functioned so well. Until today.
Tears dripped down her cheeks, dizziness clouded her vision. She checked the towel. Red drenched the white fabric. Where was her strength, pride, the will to survive? A sick sliver of irony registered— so much for the best house in the Midwest, best room, Maggie the star attraction.
She soaked a fresh cloth with scented water from the decorative bowl sitting atop the maple dresser. The delicate painting on the vessel mocked the gross pig unconscious on her bed. She opened her robe, tentatively touching her wounds with the wet linen, cleaning her bruises, scratches and torn flesh. Her large breasts, of which she had been so proud and utilized with great effect, hung in creased defeat. How had Maggie become so defenseless?
She pulled her stiletto, sheathed in velvet, from the top drawer. The feminine blade looked silly compared to the brute on the bed, a peashooter to protect her from a bear. But the touch of the weapon— her finger caressing the razor-sharp edge—brought a small sense of security. She tied the thin leather straps around her thigh and tightened the elegant Chinese silk dressing gown.
His overalls hung over the expensive ottoman, dwarfing the piece of furniture just as the Swede’s bulk had overwhelmed her. Objects bulged in the many pockets and flaps, but she knew where he kept his money. A furtive glance back at the farmer told her he wouldn’t be waking for some time. An inside seam held his pouch. She again looked back at the bed. This son of a bitch had taken her out of circulation. He’d wiped out her plans to escape from her demeaning servitude as a whore. At least her price should rise to cover her future lost wages.
Nervous fingers pried the bag from the rough denim. The amount of gold coins crammed into the fabric confirmed the farmer’s loud boasts. Such wealth. Her stomach churned to a different rhythm now—a sharp-edged, metallic fear. She fumbled into the pouch, eyes whipping between the Swede and his money.
Fingertips wormed out two $10 gold coins, then a third, a shiny $20 double eagle. Then two more coins, a $5 half eagle and another $10 gold piece. This $55 added to the original $200 would be closer to the true price of his destructive appetite.
Maggie replaced the pouch in the farmer’s clothing and limped over to the wall by the dresser. She took another quick peek over her shoulder, then pried the baseboard loose. The gold slid into the hidden compartment, joining two years’ worth of savings—close to $2,000. An amount that would allow her to forge a new life.
Maggie moved to her padded chair, collapsed onto the cushion, and stuffed the linen snugly between her legs. Her robe parted, allowing a clear glance at her knife. If she stabbed him, would he deflate like a balloon as he had punctured her hopes of freedom? Or would fluid gush from the overstuffed animal like the breach in a dam? Didn’t matter. She knew she couldn’t kill him.
If her parents could see her now. Of course, if her parents could see, Maggie wouldn’t have been forced into this position. They’d left her an orphan struggling for survival. Well, she still had a dream, far-fetched as it might be. And perhaps now she had enough cash as well. This could still be her time to move on, if only she still possessed the physical strength necessary. One thing was for damn sure, she’d never allow herself to again be destitute, hopeless and alone on the pitiless streets of any city.
San Francisco morning fog from the Pacific chilled and invigorated Alex. The usual commercial activity swirled around him as he made his way to the middle of the block. He caught himself whistling last year’s most popular and now most appropriate song, “There’ll Be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight.” There sure as hell would be. Images of the night’s pleasures brought a grin to his lips, ending the song. Couldn’t whistle and smile at the same time. A long-suppressed laugh burst from his swelling chest.
Goodman would be the perfect manager—honest, experienced, but with little ambition. Wiggens had negotiated the rent below market, needing only Alex’s father’s signature on the lease. Alex had purchased passage to Seattle on the Excelsior next Thursday, a first-class berth at that. He had the last piece in place. He hurried down Montgomery Street to the store, excitement lending speed to his steps, and pushed through the substantial oak door of Stromberg Mercantile. His new life would be that of a successful businessman, free from his father’s destructive grasp and the unrelenting guilt of past events.
Noisy customers pawed at the piles of dry goods that showcased the wide selection for which the store was famous. Alex dodged two salesmen waving purchase orders at him. With a smile and a tip of his hat, he moved too fast to invite conversation. But Max grabbed him at the foot of the polished wooden stairs leading to the second floor offices.
“Watch yourself, Alex,” his uncle warned, large features crowding his eternally worried face. “Your father seems upset about something. Wouldn’t confide in me. As usual.”
“For a change, it’s nothing I’ve done,” Alex said, patting Max on the shoulder.
He flew up the stairs two at a time. No more sneaking like a petty thief to the activities that any normal male gravitated toward. No longer would he play the sham game of conforming to a restrictive, reactionary community of social misfits. Sweet release was right around the corner. Four years of waiting and he would get his opportunity—welcome space and freedom from the iron, often irrational, grip of the old man.
He entered his father’s small but well-appointed office. Mordecai Stromberg sat erect and formal behind his large desk, impeccable. The older man’s serious, lined face was clean-shaven, unlike most of his contemporaries. Even his large nose did little to tarnish the image of a handsome gentleman, aged but dominant.
“Father, the deal’s done,” Alex said.
Don’t smile. Maintain cool control. Mordecai disapproved of outward emotion. Never let anyone know what’s on your mind. This lesson served him well in his nightly poker games. He could thank his father for at least that.
“Sit down, Abraham.”
Why did the old man insist on calling him Abraham? No one ever called him anything but Alex. Mordecai knew full well his son’s distaste for his given name. Max had been correct. Mordecai did not look happy—instead, more sour than normal.
Once again Alex sat in the large, hard green-leather chair angled in front of Mordecai’s desk. He hated that chair. An inquisitor’s chair. He had often been reduced to a powerless child in the grasp of that armchair, humbled before his father.
“I’m headed for Seattle Thursday, Father, with the signed lease,”
Alex said with more confidence than he felt. He shrank under the old man’s glare, always less of a man here in this office. “Wiggens found an excellent location two blocks from the wharfs. You couldn’t come close to a spot like that here in San Francisco.”
“I don’t understand why you’re driven to such risks,” Mordecai said. The patriarch’s clothes sheathed his slight body in a perfect fit, every strand of his thinning hair in place. “We have a profitable, secure business in the city. You’ll inherit all of it. You’re the only one left.”
A wistful note stole into his father’s stone-cold delivery. Alex’s older brother, Samuel, dead but not forgotten. Never forgotten. Guilt crept up Alex’s spine. Fifteen years had passed since San Francisco Bay had swallowed his brother and spared him. Fifteen years battered by unrelenting nightmares, further fueled by his smothering father’s too obvious preference for Samuel. The son who no longer lived.
“I’ve survived in this city for almost fifty years,” Mordecai continued, “because I’ve resisted temptation. I persevered through gold fever, fires, the erratic supply of goods, the lure of the stock market and real estate speculation.”
Amazing the intensity the old man brought to a message delivered a hundred times before. So damn sure of himself. The old man had never shown him one sliver of gratitude or respect for any of Alex’s hard work. And Mordecai refused to acknowledge his own mistakes, even after Alex had scrambled to cover his father’s shortcomings.
“There is no easy way to grow. You, Abraham, must also control your urges. Be patient, build slowly, consistently and at the right moment.”
“We’ve been through this a hundred times,” Alex said, unable to meet his father’s eyes. “I admit last time you were correct. Timing was bad. The Panic of ’93 would have put us in jeopardy if we’d expanded to Sacramento.”
Four years ago he’d been ready to erupt when his father, at the last minute, vetoed the new Sacramento location. Alex had to stay calm. Just surviving in San Francisco working for his father was not enough. He craved success and freedom from the grisly bonds of his past. This was one battle he had to win. Today new hope filled him.
“But this is 1897,” Alex said, struggling to keep his excitement under control. “We’re in much better shape.”
“We are not in better shape.” The old man opened his arms in a gesture of peace and understanding. “It isn’t time, Abraham.” Mordecai now folded his hands on top of the empty desk. A predictable, earnest expression pursed his father’s lips. Here comes the goddamn lecture. Again.
“The economy hasn’t recovered. In fact, it may even be in worse condition than it has been the last several years. Millions are out of work. Gold is still being hoarded. Store sales are flat at best, despite price increases—”
“We’re committed,” Alex hissed, rebellion building within him.
Sparks in the hard brown eyes, a tightening face sent a not so subtle warning to Alex. Interruptions were a cardinal sin. Bracing air flowed from the open window, bringing the ring of bells, horses neighing, hawkers squawking. But the refreshing breeze couldn’t staunch Alex’s instant perspiration from fear-induced heat.
“No.” The old man’s voice intensified in depth and timbre. “We’re not committed. And we are not opening in Seattle.”
Not again. Not after all his work, his promises to Wiggens and Goodman. Panic roared through Alex’s body.
“You gave me permission,” Alex said, embarrassed by the pathetic squeak of his voice. Would he forever be a slave to this man? “I’ve arranged everything. Given my word.”
“You’re too inexperienced to understand the dangers.” His father slapped both palms on the immaculate surface of his desk. “Too willing to risk what I have built at such a terrible price.”
“Goddamn it.” Alex lunged to his feet, his long, taut torso levered over the desk, knuckles white. “You can’t do this.”
“Don’t you dare raise your voice to me,” his father said, pointing a shaking finger at Alex. Steel laced the old man’s words.
This was the point of no return. Alex had to make a choice. One more word of anger, one more hint of disrespect, and his father’s temper would crash down upon him with its usual devastating force and consequences. Should he fold his cards, retreat to the role of the good son? Was there even hope that he could become the good son? When his own survival convicted him of his brother’s death?
Mordecai sat stiff, frail. His eyes looked through Alex, gazing at some painful memory that had to encompass Samuel’s death. A tide of violence flooded toward the surface. He would be humiliated within the entire West Coast business community. Nothing but a high-priced errand boy with no authority. His reputation destroyed. Alex wanted to kill the ancient son of a bitch. Just snap his ornery neck.
Mordecai Stromberg appeared an ancient rock, inflexible and sharp-edged. Their roles cemented in place: Mordecai, the grieving father; Samuel, the favored son even in death; and Alex, the perpetual disappointment crucified to the damn green chair, forever cursed for living.
“Sit down,” his father demanded, refocusing on Alex.
A desire to crush his father seared hot and deep. Alex could never act out his fantasy, the urge to destroy snuffed by a lifetime of subservience and demanded duty. He swallowed his pride, disgusted with his weakness, his inability to break loose from this old coot. How many times had he been humbled in this goddamn green chair? How many great ideas reduced to useless kindling? Expand the store’s assortment to include housewares items to attract women customers—not necessary. Increase newspaper advertising—too expensive. Promote a week-long annual sale liquidating slow-moving items to create space for new merchandise—too many markdowns.
Why was he so intimidated? He eased back into the chair, anger and frustration simmering. Why couldn’t he tell his father to go to hell? Just walk out the door and start a new life free from the old man’s suffocating control? One day his father would die. But not soon enough. Today, once again, his father crushed any hope of freedom. Was he really so incompetent he couldn’t be trusted to run the business, any business? No, the bustling activity on the floor beneath him rekindled his confidence.
TO PURCHASE Chasing Klondike Dreams visit Amazon.com/ChasingKlondike
iUniverse (413 pp.)
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Bloomington, IN 47403
$19.95 paperback, $3.99 e-book
ISBN: 978-1-5320-1479-6 (sc)
ISBN: 978-1-5320-1479-8 (e)
Library of Congress Control Number 2017902916
iUniverse rev. date: 03/10/2017