"What, then, do you mean to do?"
"Thry it," was the imperturbable response.
Such talk was not calculated to cheer the listeners, but knowing the Irishman as they did, they received his statement with less seriousness than they should have done, for he had by no means overrated the peril in their front. Jeff made another examination of the raft while he had the opportunity, and strengthened it in every possible way. He was pleased that it stood the test so well, though it had been severely wrenched, and when it crawled over the sunken rock it had narrowly missed being torn asunder. The fastenings of the goods were examined and everything prepared, so far as it could be done, for the crucial trial at hand.
The party were seated in various positions about the raft, looking anxiously ahead, when Tim pointed a little way in advance, with the question:
"Do ye all obsarve that?"
He indicated a high bank of sand on the right which had been cut out by the erosion of the violent current. Near by some philanthropist had put up a sign, "Keep a Good Look Out."
"You have larned what other people think of the same," he added; "there's been more than twinty men drowned in there."
"Because they could not swim?" asked Frank.
"'Cause the best swimmer in the world can't swim in there; you and mesilf, boys, will soon be on the same futting, for the raison that we won't have any futting at all."
"How long is the canon?"
"Not quite half a mile. Miles Canon, that we've just passed through, is like a duck-pond alongside the rapids in front of us."
"Can a boat go through?"
"The thing has been done, but only about one in fifty that starts into them rapids ever raiches the outlet, excipt in bits the size of yer hand."
Frank and Roswell looked at each other in consternation. Was it possible that Jeff would allow the criminal recklessness Tim contemplated? Where the chances were so overwhelmingly against success, it was throwing away their lives to trust themselves to the fearful rapids that had already caused so many deaths.
"If you want to try," said Roswell, excitedly, "you may do so, but neither Frank nor I will. Put us ashore!"
He addressed himself to Jeff, who was seated on the edge of the upper deck, calmly smoking his pipe. He did not look around nor seem to hear the appeal.
"Never mind," interposed Frank; "if they are willing, we are not the ones to back out. I know of no law that prevents a man making a fool of himself."
"Very well," replied his cousin, more composedly, "I am ready."
ON THE YUKON.
Jeff Graham looked inquiringly at Tim McCabe, who nodded his head by way of reply. At the same time he said something to Hardman, and all three rose to their feet. Then the poles were plied with an effect that speedily drove the raft against the bank, where Tim sprang ashore and secured it. Brave and reckless as was the fellow, he had no intention of trying to take the boat through the exceedingly dangerous White Horse Rapids, but he could not refuse the chance for a little amusement at the expense of his young friends.
In truth, no one should ever attempt to take a boat through White Horse Rapids. The best course, perhaps, is to let it drift down the rapids, guided by a rope one hundred and fifty feet in length. If it passes through without material injury, the craft is still at command below. Another plan is to portage. At this writing there are roller-ways on the western side, over which the boats can be rolled with a windlass to help pull them to the top of the hill. In lining a craft, it must be done on the right-hand side. Three miles farther down comes the Box Canon, one hundred yards in length and fifty feet wide, with a chute of terrific velocity. Repeated attempts have been made by reckless miners to take a boat through, but it is much the same as trying to shoot the rapids below Niagara, and the place has well earned its title of "The Miners' Grave." Still, the feat has been performed in safety.
Progress was so effectually barred at White Horse that our friends gave up their raft as of no further use. It was certain to be shattered, and where there was so much timber it was comparatively easy to build another, with which to make the remaining two hundred and twenty miles, particularly as there was no need of constructing a double-decker, for the rough voyaging was at an end.
The goods were, therefore, packed upon the Yukon sleds, and then the raft set adrift. It was never seen again, though an occasional stray log afterward observed bobbing in the current below the rapids may have formed a part of the structure that had served the travellers so well. There was enough snow for the sleds, but the work was exhausting, and was not completed until late in the afternoon, when the tent was set up and camp made.
By the close of the following day the raft was finished. It contained enough pine lumber to float a much heavier load than formed its burden, but, as we have stated, it lacked the double deck, since the necessity for one no longer existed.
The raft was no more than fairly completed when a storm that had been threatening broke upon the party. Since it was expected, and there was no saying how long it would last, the tent was set up and secured in place. Considerable fuel had been gathered, and every preparation was made for a prolonged stay, though it need not be said that each one hoped it would prove otherwise. In a country where for four-fifths of the days the sun does not show itself, such weather must be expected, and, on the whole, our friends counted themselves fortunate that they had been able to make such good progress.
The tent was hardly in position, and all within, huddling around the stove, in which Tim had just started a fire, when they were startled by a hail:
"Halloa, the house!"
The four hurried outside, where a striking sight met them. Eight men, each with a heavy pack strapped over his shoulders, and bending over with his load, thickly clad, but with their faces, so far as they could be seen through the wrappings, wet and red, had halted in front of the tent, which they scrutinized with wonder.
"Are you going to begin digging here?" called one of the men, whose eyes, nose, and mouth were all that was visible behind his muffler.
"Not while the storm lasts," replied Tim. "If we had room, we'd ask ye to come inside and enj'y yoursilves till the weather clears. At any rate, we'll be glad to give ye something warm to ate and drink."
"Oh, that's it!" exclaimed another of the men. "You're afraid of the storm, are you?"
"We're not much afraid, but we ain't in love with the same. Won't ye come in—that is, one or two at a time?"
"Thanks for your invitation, but we haven't the time to spare. We're afeared they'll get all the gold in the Klondike country if we don't hurry. You're foolish to loiter along the road like this."
"We're willing to lose a bit of the goold for sake of the comfort. If ye are bound to go on, we wish ye good luck."
"The same to yourselves," the plucky and hopeful miners called as they plodded forward.
For two dreary days the party was storm-stayed in camp.
"Here," said Jeff Graham, when making ready to resume their voyage, "we leave our Yukon sleds."
"Shall we not need them on our return?" asked Roswell.
"We should if we returned by this route, but I wouldn't work my way against these streams and through the passes again for all the gold in the Klondike country. We shall take the steamer down the Yukon to St. Michael's, and so on to Seattle."
"That is a long voyage," suggested Hardman.
"Yes, four thousand miles; but it will be easy enough for us when we are on a steamer."
"The Yukon is closed for eight months or more each year."
"We don't intend to go down it when it's closed, for I didn't bring skates along, and I don't know how to skate, anyway."
"You do not expect to stay long in the Klondike country?" was the inquiring remark of Hardman, who showed little interest in the intentions of their leader.
"That depends; we shall come back in two months, or six, or a year, according as to how rich we strike it."
"S'pose you don't strike it at all."
Jeff shrugged his shoulders.
"We'll make a good try for it. If we slip up altogether, these folks I have brought with me won't be any worse off than before; but I don't intend to slip up—that ain't what I came into this part of the world for."
"No, I reckon few people come for that," was the comment of Hardman, who seemed to be in a cheerful mood again.
Nothing could have offered a stronger contrast to their previous rough experience than that which now came to them. Fourteen miles down the river brought them to Lake Labarge, where they had nothing to do but to sit down and float with the current, using the poles occasionally to keep the raft in the best position. Thirty-one miles brought them to Lewis River, down which they passed to the Hootalinqua; then to the Big Salmon, and forty-five miles farther to the Little Salmon, the current running five miles an hour, and much swifter in the narrow canon-like passages. Then beyond the Little Salmon the craft and its hopeful passengers floated smoothly with the current for a distance of one hundred and twenty miles, when the boys were startled to see four giant buttes of stone towering above the water, which rushed violently among them.
"What place is that?" asked Frank, who with his cousin surveyed the immense towers with deep interest.
"Five-Finger Rapids," was the reply.
"They look dangerous."
"So they be, unless ye happens to know which two to pass between; now, which would ye selict as a guess?"
Roswell and Frank studied them awhile, and the latter answered:
"It doesn't seem to me that it makes much difference which one you take."
"Ah, but it makes a mighty difference. We should have big trouble if we neglicted to folly the right side of the river."
Jeff and Hardman were already working the raft in that direction, and Tim now gave his aid. It looked perilous, but, knowing the right course, the craft made the passage without any mishap. All settled down to enjoy the smooth sailing that was before them once more. Tim and Jeff lit their pipes, Hardman sat apart, while the boys were together near the front of the raft. The weather was clearer than it had been for several days, and much more moderate. May was well advanced, and the short, hot summer was at hand. If all went well, they would reach the gold country at the right season, and as they neared the goal the spirits of all rose, and a longing to get forward manifested itself in many ways. They waited until night had fairly come before they went ashore and encamped, and they were off again at daybreak, despite the uncannily early hour at which it comes in that part of the world.
Six miles down the Lewis River took them to the Rink Rapids, through which they passed without difficulty. Just beyond are the ruins of Fort Selkirk, where the Pelly and Lewis rivers unite. Tim McCabe studied the mouth of the Pelly, as it poured into the Lewis, and soon as the point was fairly passed, he turned to his friends, his round face aglow.
"I offer me congratulations," he said, doffing his cap and bowing low.
"On what?" asked Frank Mansley.
"The stream over which ye are now floating takes the name of the Yukon, and doesn't give up the same till it tumbles into the Pacific siveral miles to the west of us."
"Several miles!" repeated Frank; "it must be three thousand."
"Something like that, I belave. The worst part of our journey is behind us."
"How far are we from Juneau?"
"To be exact, which I loikes to be, it is five hundred and tin miles."
AT DAWSON CITY.
Naturally the route over which the little party of gold-seekers were journeying steadily improved. The Yukon, like many other great rivers of the world, comes into being a lusty, vigorous infant, the junction of the Lewis and Pelly making it a stream of considerable proportions from the moment it takes its name.
Other gold-hunters were seen from time to time, and there were pleasant exchanges and greetings with most of them. It was the custom of Jeff Graham to keep going so long as daylight lasted, when the raft was worked into shore and an encampment made. For a time the old miner kept his Winchester within immediate reach, hoping to gain sight of some deer or wild game, but as day after day and night after night passed without the first glimpse of anything of the kind, he gave up in disgust.
"It's the most villainous country on the face of the earth," he said, as he lit his pipe at the evening fire. "If it wasn't for the gold that we know is here, no decent man would stay over night in it. Frank, tell me something about the confounded country."
"Me!" replied the boy, with a laugh. "I don't know half as much as you and Tim."
"Yes, you do. Tim don't know anything more than the best way to travel through the mountains and across the lakes."
The Irishman took his pipe from between his lips to offer protest against this slur, but changed his mind, and resumed smoking, though his eyes twinkled.
"A man that takes a lot of gold out of the ground and then lets a thief steal it isn't fit to go alone."
"Which is why I've provided mesilf with a chap that knows it all," said Tim, not the least offended, though Hardman scowled, for the remark was a pointed reflection upon him; but he held his peace.
"What about the Injins here?" pursued Jeff, addressing the boys; "they're different from ours in Californy."
Frank had no wish to air his knowledge, but he replied:
"I have read that the natives belong to the red and yellow races—that is, the Indian and Mongolian. There are two stocks of Indians—the Thlinkets and the Tenneh. There are only a few Thlinkets, and they live along the coast. That old Indian who ferried us over Lake Lindeman is a Tenneh, as are the natives of the interior. You may not think they are much like our Indians, but they belong to the Chippewayan family, the same as the Apaches, who have caused so much trouble in Mexico and Arizona."
"That has been my 'pinion," said Tim, who now heard the fact for the first time; "and the raison why the Alaska redskins ain't as bad as the Apaches is 'cause the weather is so cold it freezes up all the diviltry in them."
"Roswell," continued Jeff, who was proud to show off the learning of his young friends, "why do they call the Eskimos that name?"
"The name, which means those who eat raw flesh, was given to them by the Indians. They call themselves Aleuts, or Innuits. The Innuits are the same as the Eskimos of Greenland and the Arctic regions, while the Aleuts belong to Alaska, the long, narrow peninsula which extends southwesterly from the mainland and the Aleutian Islands, that look like a continuation of the peninsula. As for the climate, temperature, and size of Alaska, you and Tim know as much as we do," said Roswell, who disliked as much as his cousin to seem to display his knowledge.
"Why not be modest," gravely asked Tim, "and say that ye knows almost as much as Mr. McCabe, leaving Mr. Graham out of the quistion, be the token that he knows nothing at all, and I'm afeard will niver larn?"
"As you please," replied Roswell; "you and Jeff may settle that between you."
"And ther's nothing to sittle, as me mither used to obsarve whin she looked into the impty coffee-pot; Jiff won't pretind that he knows anything of this country so long as he is in the prisence of mesilf."
"Very true," gravely replied the old miner; "but if I do scoop in any gold, I think I'll know 'nough to shoot any man that tries to steal it."
As he spoke he darted a glance at Hardman, who was sitting a little back from the fire, also smoking, but glum and silent. The boys wondered why Jeff should make these pointed references, when he had never hinted anything of the kind before, but the old miner had a purpose in mind. While not seeming to pay any special attention to Hardman, he had studied him closely for the past few days, and felt little doubt that he was planning mischief. The words, therefore, that Jeff uttered were meant as a warning to the rogue of what he might expect if he attempted any crooked work.
No further reference was made to the unpleasant subject, although Jeff and Tim chaffed each other for a long time, even after the boys had wrapped themselves in their blankets and lain down to sleep. No watch was set, as would have been the case had they been journeying through a wild part of their own country, for there was nothing to be feared from wild animals or Indians. The only being whom Jeff and the boys distrusted was a member of their own company, and they did not believe he would do anything wrong until after the party had secured something worth the risk on his part.
Deprived of many of the comforts of home and a mother's care, it did not take the boys long, under the tutelage of the older ones, to attend to their own wants. Roswell and Frank soon learned how to sew on a button and do the mending which their garments occasionally required. They washed their clothing and kept themselves in better form than do many men when placed in a similar situation.
With the weather growing more summery and hardly a bit of ice in the river, the raft glided down the Upper Yukon. Ninety-eight miles from the head of the Yukon, the craft passed the mouth of the Milk River, and in this case the party saw the appropriateness of the name, for its water has a perceptible whitish color.
A goodly distance remained to be passed, for it was ten miles to Stewart River, and twenty-five more to Fort Ogilvie, where they spent the night. They were now nearing their journey's end, and all showed a peculiar agitation, such as is natural when we feel ourselves close upon the solution of a problem that has baffled us for a long time.
One form of this emotion was the impatience to get forward faster than before. There was nothing of the feeling when leaving Seattle or Juneau or Dyea, nor did they experience it to any degree while toiling through the hundreds of miles from lake to lake and down the upper waters of the streams which help to form the Yukon.
Roswell and Frank were grateful for one blessed fact—they were stronger and in more rugged health than ever in their lives. When making their way through the passes and helping to drag the sleds, they felt more than once like giving up and turning back, though neither would have confessed it; but now they were hopeful, buoyant, and eager. They had sent the last letter which they expected to write home for a long time upon leaving Dyea, where they bade good-by to civilization.
The afternoon was young when the raft drifted into a portion of the Yukon which expanded into a width of two miles, where it was joined by another large stream. On the eastern shore loomed a straggling town of considerable proportions.
"Tim," said Frank, suspecting the truth, "what place is that?"
"Frinds," replied Tim, vainly trying to conceal his agitation, "that town is Dawson City, and the river flowing into ours is the Klondike. Ye have raiched the goold counthry, which, being the same, I rispictfully asks ye all to jine mesilf in letting out a hurrah which will make the town trimble and the payple open their eyes so wide that they won't git them shet agin for a wake to come. Are ye riddy? Altogither!"
And the cheers were given with a will.
ON THE EDGE OF THE GOLD-FIELDS.
The little party of gold-seekers had every cause to congratulate themselves, for after a journey of nearly two thousand miles from Seattle, through wild passes, dangerous rapids and canons, over precipitous mountains, amid storm and tempests, with their lives many a time in peril, half frozen and exhausted by the most wearisome toil, they had arrived at Dawson City, in the midst of the wonderful gold district of the Northwest, all without mishap and in better condition than when they left home.
The boys, in roughing it, had breathed the invigorating ozone and gained in rugged health and strength. Youth and buoyant spirits were on their side, and their muscles, which would have become flabby in the unwholesome atmosphere of a store, were hardened, and their endurance and capacity for trying work immeasurably increased. There are thousands of men to-day enjoying life, without an ache or pain, who owe their splendid condition to the campaigning they underwent in the war for the Union. If that terrific struggle swept multitudes into their graves, it brought the balm of strength and health to many more, who otherwise would not have lived out half their days.
The trying experience of Jeff Graham in his youth and early manhood did this service for him. It was not strange, therefore, that he with his iron muscles bore the strain better than any of his companions. He seemed to be tireless, and his sturdy strength often put others to shame. He had never sapped his constitution by dissipation; and it may be said that the severe hardships of that journey from Dyea through Chilkoot Pass and the wild regions about the Upper Yukon confirmed that which already existed within his splendid make-up. As for Roswell Palmer and Frank Mansley, their excellent home training, not denying credit to the grim old miner for his wise counsel, had held them free from the bad habits which too often make boys effeminate and weak and old before their time. Gifted by nature with the best of constitutions, they had strengthened rather than undermined them. Neither had known an hour's illness throughout the long, laborious journey, and they were in the best condition possible for the great task that now confronted them.
As for Tim McCabe and Ike Hardman, their weakness lay in yielding to the temptation to drink. No such temptation appeared on the road, and their enforced temperance had the best effect. Tim was less disposed to drink than the other, but, sad to say, he indulged at times. Hardman's ideal was to obtain the means for doing nothing and minister to his base appetites.
It was in 1887 that Dr. George M. Dawson, the leader of an exploring expedition sent by the Canadian Government into the Yukon district, made a report confirming the presence of gold in vast quantities throughout that section. The principal mining camp established there was named in his honor. It faces on one of the banks of the Yukon River, along which it extends for about a mile. It has a sawmill, stores, and churches of the Baptist, Presbyterian, Methodist, and Roman Catholic denominations. Being the headquarters of the Canadian Northwest mounted police, it is one of the best-governed towns on the American continent. At the time of our friends' arrival its population was about four thousand, but the rush will swell it in an incredibly short while to ten, twenty, and possibly fifty times that number, for beyond question it is the centre of the most marvellous gold district that the world has ever known.
Copper, silver, and coal are found in large quantities, but no one gives them a thought when so much of the vastly more attractive yellow metal is within reach. It is singular that while the existence of gold was incontestably known for many years, little or no excitement was produced until 1896 and 1897, when the whole civilized world was turned almost topsy-turvy by the bewildering reports. During the first three months of the latter year more than four million dollars were taken from a space of forty square miles, where a few placer claims were worked. What harvest will be during the next few years no man dare attempt to guess. How suggestive the fact that on one stream so much of the metal has been found that it was given the name "Too Much Gold Creek!"
Inasmuch as our friends are now on the ground, a few more facts are proper, in order to understand the task that confronted them. Dawson City, it will be remembered, is in British territory, and all the great discoveries of gold have been made to the east of that town. Doubtless gold will be gathered in Alaska itself, but the probabilities are that the richest deposits are upon Canadian soil.
The mining claims begin within two and a half miles of Dawson City, on the Klondike, and follow both sides of that stream into the interior, taking in its tributaries like Hunker's Creek, Gold Bottom, Last Chance, Bear Creek, Bould's Bonanza, and El Dorado. Of these the richest are El Dorado, Gold Bottom, Hunker, and the oddly named Too Much Gold Creek. The last is the farthest from Dawson City, and the least known; but there can be no question that numerous other streams, at present unvisited, are equally rich, and will be speedily developed.
Just now placer mining is the only method employed. According to the mining laws of the Northwest, the words "mine," "placer mine," and "diggings" mean the same thing, and refer to any natural stratum or bed of earth, gravel, or cement mined for gold or other precious mineral. There is very little quartz mining, or crushing of rocks, as is practised in many sections of California. This requires expensive machinery, and little necessity for it seems to exist in the Klondike. In placer mining the pay dirt is washed by the simplest methods, such as were practised in California during the pioneer days.
Everything was hurry and bustle at Dawson City on that day, late in May, when our friends arrived. It was a noticeable fact that the date of their arrival was exactly two months after the boys kissed their parents good-by in San Francisco.
Tim McCabe had gathered much practical knowledge during his experience in this region, while Jeff had not forgotten what he passed through "in the days of '49," to which wisdom he had added, as opportunity presented, while on the way to the Klondike. When the party had eaten together at the principal hotel and the men had lit their pipes in a group by themselves, a surprise came. The old miner smoked a minute or two in silence, and then turned to Hardman, who was sitting a little apart, moody and reserved.
"Ike," said he, "I've stood by you all the way from Juneau, hain't I?"
The fellow looked wonderingly at him, as did the others, none suspecting what was coming.
"In course," was the gruff reply of Hardman; "we all stood by one another, fur if we hadn't we wouldn't stood at all."
"You've got to Dawson City without it costing you a penny, haven't you?"
"There hain't been much chance to spend money since we left Dyea," replied Hardman with a grin.
Jeff was nettled by this dodging of the issue; but he kept his temper.
"And if there had been you hadn't a dollar to spend onless you kept back some of that which you stole from Tim."
"I don't see the use of your harping on that affair," said Hardman angrily. "I've owned up, and am going to make it all right with Tim. It's none of your business, anyway, and I don't want to hear any more of it."
"Well, what I'm getting at is this: if it hadn't been for me you'd never got to this place. You're here, and now you must look out for yourself; I won't have you an hour longer in the party; we part; get away as soon as you can!"
Hardman looked savagely at the old miner, as if suspecting he had not heard aright. But a moment's reflection convinced him there was no mistake. With a muttered imprecation he rose to his feet and left. But it was by no means the last of him.
After the departure of Hardman, Jeff explained to Tim why he had driven him from their company. He told what Frank had seen when crossing Lake Lindeman, and how the fellow afterward, when he thought all were asleep within the tent, went out to meet his confederate.
"I didn't want to turn him loose on the road," added Jeff, "though I had half a mind to tell him to hunt up his friends and join them. But he now has the same chance as the rest of us, and must look out for himself."
"Begorra, but ye are right, Jiff," was the hearty response of the Irishman. "I'm beginning to suspict that he didn't intind to give back that money he borrered—that is, if he should iver lay hands on the same."
Jeff looked pityingly at his friend; but reading in the expression of his face that he was jesting, he made no response. Instead, he spoke impressively:
"You never would have lost that money if you hadn't been in liquor."
"That's the fact, Jiff; but how did ye find it out?"
"My own common sense told me. You've been looking 'round the last hour for a chance to indulge agin."
"I'll admit," was the frank response, "that a dim idea of the kind has been flickerin' through me brain; but I cast the timptation indignantly behind me. Do you know why?"
"Nobody offered to pay for the drinks, and I haven't a cint to pay for any mesilf."
"And you won't get a cent from me; you must earn it by taking out gold. If you succeed it'll be yours, and you can do as you please with it."
Tim removed his cap and scratched his head.
"I've gone a good many wakes without it, and I feel so much better that I'm thinking of keeping up the good work."
"I hope you will, and prove yourself a man of sense. But we have no time to waste; we oughter be on our way now."
The sentiment suited all, and was followed without delay. Amid the crush and hustle it was impossible to hire a horse, mule, donkey, or boat. Everything had been engaged long before, and there were hundreds of disappointed applicants who, like our friends, were obliged to make the tramp eastward on foot, carrying their utensils with them, and leaving behind all that was not necessary in the work of placer mining.
During the brief stay at Dawson City the four attentively studied such maps as they could secure, and gathered all information from the many who were qualified and willing to give it. As a consequence, when they started up the Klondike, they had a well-defined idea of their destination.
The first stream which flows into the river from the southward is the Bonanza, some twenty-five miles long. This itself has numerous small tributaries emptying into it; but hearing that all claims had been located, and not believing it possible that any valuable ones had been overlooked, they pushed on to Twelve Mile Creek, also flowing from the south. There the same facts confronted them, and camping on the road when necessary, our friends finally reached Too Much Gold Creek, thirty-five miles from Dawson.
Gold-hunters were all around them, and frequently the men and boys tramped for miles in the company of men whom they had never seen before; but such a life levels social distinctions, and they were soon upon as friendly terms as if they had come from Seattle in company.
At the mouth of Too Much Gold Creek they encountered two grizzly miners, each mounted on a mule that was so covered with additional luggage that little besides his head, ears, and forefeet was visible. They intended to cross the Klondike and prospect on the other side. Jeff asked whether there was no gold along the creek which they had just descended.
"It's full of it," was the reply of the elder; "but we're too late; all the claims have been taken up."
"Did you go to the headwaters?"
"No; we didn't want to waste the time, when all the claims are gone; there are other places as good as that, and we'll strike one; so good-by, friends."
Laughing and in high spirits, the two miners struck their boot heels against the ribs of their mules and were off. It may be worth recording that both of them struck it rich within the following week, and a month later started for home rich men.
"It ain't likely," said Jeff, "that there are many claims left along this river; but there must be some. Anyhow, we'll try it; I'm sure there are places among those mountains that nobody has visited."
To the east and south towered a spur of the Rocky Mountains. It would take hundreds of men a long time thoroughly to explore their recesses, and it was the intention of the leader to push in among them. The region resembled that to which he had been accustomed in California, and he would feel more at home there.
So the wearisome tramp was resumed and continued, with occasional rests, until late at night. Other parties were continually encountered, and all had the same story to tell of there not being a foot of desirable land that was not pre-empted. Some of these people were returning, but most of them pressed on, hopeful of striking some spot that was awaiting them.
Encamping under the shelter of a rock, the journey was resumed early the next morning, and, some twenty miles from the Klondike, a turn was made eastward among the mountains, which stretch far beyond the farthest range of vision. They were following a small stream that showed no signs of having been visited, and by noon had reached a point where they seemed as much alone as if in the depths of Africa.
"I guess we may as well try it here," said Jeff, and he began to unload his pack, in which he was promptly imitated by his companions. They quickly finished, and sat down for a long rest.
It had been a steady climb almost from the first. But for their previous severe training the boys would have succumbed, but they stood it well. The stream which flowed in front of them was little more than a brook, that seemed to be made by the melting snows above. It was clear and cold, and they drank deeply from it. Rocks and bowlders were above, below, in front, and at the rear.
When their utensils and equipage were laid in a pile, Jeff went off in one direction, Tim in another, while the boys plunged deeper into the mountains, all engaged in prospecting as best they could. Inasmuch as the boys had never had any experience in that sort of work, their only chance of success was through accident.
They followed up the stream, as nearly as they could judge, for about an eighth of a mile, still among the huge rocks, when they sat down to rest.
"We may as well go back," cried Roswell, "for Jeff and Tim are the only ones who know when they have come upon signs of gold; we may have passed a half-dozen places where it can be taken out by the bushel—"
Frank touched his cousin's arm and indicated by a nod of his head a pile of rocks a few rods away and a short distance above them. Looking thither, they saw the head and shoulders of a man intently studying them. When he found he was observed he lowered his head and disappeared.
"Do you know him?" asked Frank, in an undertone.
"No; I never saw him before."
"Yes, you have. He crossed Lake Lindeman with us. He's the one that signalled to Hardman and afterward met him at night outside of our tent."
It was an unpleasant discovery to the boys that after parting company with the ill-favored man who was known to be a friend and comrade of the rogue Ike Hardman, and after travelling hundreds of miles to this lonely spot, they should meet the fellow again. Doubtless he was engaged on the same errand as themselves, and the presumption was that sooner or later he would be joined by Hardman.
"I don't know that there is any danger," said Roswell; "but it would be more comfortable to know they were not going to be our neighbors."
"Let's follow up the man and question him," said Frank, starting to climb the rocks behind which the other's face had vanished. It took only a few minutes to reach the spot; but when they did so, and looked around, nothing was seen of him.
"He evidently doesn't wish to make our acquaintance," said Frank.
"I hope he will continue to feel that way; we must tell Jeff and Tim about this. Let's hurry back to camp."
They now started to descend the stream, which they had followed from the point where they left their luggage. By using the brook as their guide, they were in no danger of losing their way.
About half the distance was passed when they came to a point where the walking looked better on the other side. The stream was so narrow that Frank, who was in the lead, easily leaped across. Roswell started to follow, but tripped and fell on his hands and knees, one foot splashing in the water, which was only a few inches in depth and as clear as crystal.
"Are you hurt?" asked Frank, pausing and looking around at him.
"Not a bit. I don't know what made me so awkward."
"Halloa! what's that?"
At first Frank thought it was a small fish holding itself stationary in the brook; but that could not be, and he stooped down to see more clearly. With an exclamation, he dashed his hand into the water and drew out a rough, irregular nugget nearly two inches in diameter each way. It was bright yellow in color, and so heavy that there could be no doubt of its nature.
"It's gold!" he exclaimed in a half-frightened undertone, as he passed it to Roswell, who was as much excited as he. He "hefted" it and held it up to the light.
"No mistake, it is. I wonder what it is worth."
"Several hundred dollars at least. I'll bet there are lots more about here."
They straightway began a vigorous search up and down stream, confident of finding other similar nuggets, but none was discovered, and finally they reached the place where their baggage had been left, and where Tim and Jeff were awaiting them.
"Look!" called the delighted Frank, holding up the nugget. "See what we found!"
"Begorra, but I shouldn't wonder if that's worth something," remarked Tim, catching the contagion. Jeff merely smiled and reached out his hand without any appearance of excitement.
"Let me have a look at it."
He never used glasses, nor did he bring any acid with which to test such yellow metals as they might find, for he needed neither. He had been trained too well in his early manhood.
The instant he noted its great weight he was convinced of the truth. But, without speaking for a minute or two, he turned the nugget over, held it up to the light, and then put it between his big, sound teeth as if it were a hickory-nut which he wished to crack. He looked at the abrasion made by his teeth, tossed the nugget several feet in the air, and, catching it in his palm as it descended, said:
"That's pure gold. Haven't you any more?"
"No," replied Frank; "we searched, but couldn't find any."
Jeff moved his hand up and down and closed one eye, as if that would help him to estimate the weight more exactly.
"I should say that it is worth from six to eight hundred dollars; you younkers have made purty good wages for to-day. I hope," he added quizzically, "you'll be able to keep it up."
"And how have you made out?" asked Roswell.
"Tim says he didn't come onto anything that looks like pay dirt; but I struck a spot that gives me hope. We'll locate here for a while."
Of course it was impossible for the party to bring any material with them from which to construct a dwelling. The regulation miner's cabin is twelve by fourteen feet, with walls six or seven feet high, and gables two feet higher. It consists of a single room, with the roof heavily earthed and the worst sort of ventilation, owing to the small windows and the necessity of keeping warm in a climate that sometimes drops to fifty or sixty degrees below zero. The miners keep close within the cabins during the terrible winter weather, or, if it permits, they sink a shaft to bed-rock and then tunnel in different directions. The ground never thaws below a depth of two feet, so there is no need of shoring to prevent its caving. The pay dirt is brought up by means of a small windlass and thrown into a heap, where it remains until spring, when it is washed out.
Since the season was well advanced, the men and boys prepared themselves to wash the pay dirt whenever found. But, first of all, it was necessary to establish a home for themselves while they remained in the region. They had a single axe and a few utensils besides the shovels, pans, and articles required in their work. While Tim was prospecting, he gave more attention to searching for a site for a home than for gold, and was fortunate enough to find a place among the rocks, which was fitted up quite comfortably. The stone furnished three and a part of four walls necessary, and they cut branches, which were spread over the top and covered with dirt for the roof. Owing to the moderate weather and the trouble from smoke, the fire was kindled on the outside when required for cooking purposes. The Yukon stove, because of its weight, was left at Dawson City, whither one of them expected to go when it became necessary to replenish their stores. Although the nights were still cold, the weather was comparatively comfortable. Before long it would become oppressive during the middle of the day.
As Jeff figured it out, they had enough food, tobacco, and supplies to last for a couple of weeks, or possibly longer. If they struck a claim which they wished to stake out, it would be necessary for one of them to go to Dawson City to register it, the process being quite simple.
The prospector is forbidden to exceed five hundred feet up and down a stream, following the course of the valley, but the width may run from base to base of the mountains. Thus a miner's claim is one of the few things that is often broader than it is long. Should the stream have no other claims located upon it, the one thus made is known as "the discovery claim," and the stakes used are marked 0. This claim is the starting-point, the next one up and the next down the stream being marked No. 1, and there can be only two such on any stream.
Next, four stakes must be driven in place, each being marked with the owner's initials and the letters "M. L.," meaning "mining location," after which it must be bounded with cross or end lines, and within the ensuing sixty days the claim has to be filed with the government's recorder at Dawson City. Should a claim be staked before the discovery of gold, the prospector has sixty days in which to find the metal. If he fails to do so in the time mentioned, his claim lapses, since it is absolutely essential that he shall find gold in order to hold it permanently.
Not the least interesting feature of the stay of our friends in the gold region was their dwelling during those memorable days. The rocks came so nearly together that an irregular open space was left, which averaged a width of twenty feet with a depth slightly less. Thus three sides and the floor were composed of solid stone. When the roof, as described, was put in place, the dwelling had the appearance of a cavern fully open at the front. There the canvas composing the tent was stretched, and so arranged that the dwelling, as it may be called, was completed. It was inclosed on all sides, with the door composed of the flaps of the tent, which could be lowered at night, so that the inmates were effectually protected against the weather, though had there been any prowling wild animals or intruding white men near, they would have had little difficulty in forcing an entrance. It has been explained how all trouble from the smoke of a fire was avoided.
One of the peculiarities of this primitive house was its interior arrangement. There were so many projecting points on the walls that they were utilized as pegs upon which to hang the extra garments. A ledge a couple of feet above the floor served as a couch, upon which the boys spread their blankets, while the men laid theirs on the floor itself. The mining and cooking utensils were neatly arranged against the rear wall, where were piled the small canvas bags intended to contain the gold dust and nuggets that were to be gathered.
Jeff expressed the truth when he said:
"This will sarve us well while the weather is moderate; but if we should be here when the thermometer goes down to fifty or sixty degrees below zero, we'd turn into icicles before we could say Jack Robinson."
Hardly pausing to place their house in order, the party set out to investigate the find which Jeff hoped he had made.
Going up the stream for a short distance, they turned off into a narrow valley, which never would have attracted the attention of the boys.
The old miner stood for some minutes attentively studying his surroundings, and then, instead of beginning to dig, as his companions expected him to do, he said with an expression of disgust:
"Boys, I've made a mistake; there's no gold here."
"How can you tell until you search?" asked the astonished Roswell.
"It ain't what I thought it was; you don't find the stuff in places like this. There's no use of wasting time; come on."
Wondering at his action, the three, smiling but silent, trailed after him. Climbing over some intervening bowlders, they shortly emerged into a place altogether different from any they had yet seen. It was a valley two or three hundred feet in width, with the sides gently sloping. There was no snow on the ground, and here and there a few green blades of grass could be seen sprouting from the fertile soil. Through the middle of this valley meandered a stream eight or ten feet in width, but shallow, and so clear that the bottom could be plainly seen while yet some distance away. The valley itself soon curved out of sight above, and it was impossible, therefore, to guess its extent in that direction. Below it terminated, not far from where they stood, the rocks coming together so as to form a small canon, through which the creek rushed with a velocity that reminded them of the dangerous ones they had passed on their way from Chilkoot Pass.
"Wait here a bit," said Jeff, as he started toward the stream. The others obeyed, watching his actions with interest.
He strode to the creek, along which he walked a few rods, his head bent as he carefully scrutinized all that passed under his eye. Suddenly he stopped and stared as if he had found that for which he was looking. Then stooping down, he leaned as far out as he could, gathered a handful of the gravelly soil, and put it in the washer which he had taken with him. This was repeated several times. Then he dipped the pan so as nearly to fill it with water, after which he whirled it round several times with a speed that caused some of the water to fly out. That part of his work completed, he set down the pan which served as a washer, and walked rapidly back toward his friends.
"Another disappointment," remarked Frank; "it isn't as easy to find gold as we thought."
"I don't know about that," said Tim McCabe. "Jiff looks to me as if he has hit on something worth while. How is it, Jiff?" he called as the old miner drew near.
"That's our claim," he replied; "we'll stake it out, and then I'm going to Dawson to file it."
"Are you sure there is gold here?" asked Roswell, in some excitement.
"Yes, I hit it this time. We mustn't lose any days in staking it out, or somebody else will get ahead of us."
The assurance of Jeff imparted confidence to the rest. The stakes were cut and driven, according to the rule already stated, and then Jeff breathed more freely.
"We've got sixty days to find the stuff," he said, "and nobody daren't say a word to us. All the same, I'm going to Dawson to file the claim and make things dead sure."
"When will you go?"
"Now, right off. I want to bring back some things with me, and I'll be gone two or three days, but I won't lose no time."
Jeff was one of those men who do not require long to make up their minds, and whom, having reached a decision, nothing can turn aside from its execution. Ten minutes later he was hurrying toward Dawson City, forty miles or more distant.
Inasmuch as Tim McCabe had practical knowledge of placer mining, the three decided to improve the time while Jeff was absent in taking out some of the gold which he assured them was there.
As has been explained, this form of mining is of the crudest and cheapest nature. In winter, after sinking a shaft to bed-rock, tunnels are run in different directions, and the frozen dirt piled up until warm weather permits its washing out. The distance to bed-rock varies from four to twenty feet. The gold is found in dust, grains, and nuggets, the last varying from the size of a hickory-nut or larger to small grains of pure gold.
It quite often occurs that the bed-rock is seamy, with many small depressions. It is supposed that when the debris containing the original gold swept over this bed-rock, the great weight of the metal caused it to fall and lodge in the crevices, where it has lain for ages. Certain it is that the richest finds have been made in such places.
Having fixed upon the spot where the work should begin, Tim McCabe and the boys set to work to clear off the coarse gravel and stone from a patch of ground. At the end of several hours they had completed enough to begin operations. Tim dropped a few handfuls of the finer gravel or sand into his pan, which was a broad, shallow dish of sheet iron. Then water was dipped into the pan until it was full, when he whirled it swiftly about and up and down. This allowed the gold, on account of its greater specific gravity, to fall to the bottom, while the sand itself was floated off by the agitation. Tim had learned the knack of dipping the pan sideways, so as gradually to get rid of the worthless stuff, while the heavy yellow particles remained below.
The boys stood attentively watching the operation, which was carried on with such skill that by and by nothing was left in the bottom but the yellow and black particles. The latter were pulverized magnetic iron ore, which almost always accompanies the gold. Frank's and Roswell's eyes sparkled as they saw so much of the yellow particles, even though it looked almost as fine as the black sand.
"How will you separate them?" asked Frank.
"Now ye'll obsarve the use that that cask is to be put to," replied Tim, "if ye'll oblige me by filling the same with water."
This was done, when Tim flung about a pound of mercury into the cask, after which he dumped into it the black and yellow sand. As soon as the gold came in contact with the mercury it formed an amalgam.
"This will do to start things," said Tim. "When we have enough to make it pay, we'll squaze it through a buckskin bag."
"What is the result?"
"Nearly all the mercury will ooze through the bag, and we can use the same agin in the cask. The impure goold will be placed on a shovel and held over a hot fire till the mercury has gone off in vapor, and only the pure goold is lift, or rather there's just a wee bit of the mercury still hanging 'bout the goold; but we'll make a big improvement whin Jiff comes back. The filing of this claim ain't the only thing that takes him to Dawson City."
"What do you think of the deposit here?"
"I b'lave it's one of the richest finds in the Kloondike counthry, and if it turns out as it promises, we shall go home and live like gintlemen the rist of our lives."
A GOLDEN HARVEST.
Tim McCabe and the boys wrought steadily through the rest of the day and the following two days. Inasmuch as the summer sun in the Klondike region does not thaw the soil to a greater depth than two feet, it was necessary to pile wood upon the earth and set it afire. As this gradually dissolved the frozen ground, the refuse dirt was cleared away, so as to reach paying earth or gravel. The results for a time were disappointing. The gold-hunters secured a good deal of yellow grains or dust, and ordinarily would have been satisfied, but naturally they were greedy for more.
There came times of discouragement, when the boys began to doubt the truth of the wonderful stories that had reached them from the Klondike region, or they thought that if perchance the reports were true, they themselves and their friends had not hit upon a productive spot. Tim, when appealed to, had little to say, but it was of a hopeful nature. It would have been unnatural had he not been absorbed in the work in hand.
That there was gold was undeniable, for the evidence was continually before them, but the question was whether it was to be found in paying quantities upon their claim. At the close of the second day all they had gathered was not worth ten dollars.
But the harvest rewarded them on the third day. Tim was working hard and silently, when he suddenly leaped to his feet, flung down his pick, and hurling his cap in the air, began dancing a jig and singing an Irish ditty. The boys looked at him in amazement, wondering whether he had bidden good-by to his senses.
"Do ye obsarve that beauty?" he asked, stopping short and holding up a yellow nugget as large as the one the boys had taken from the brook several days before. Roswell and Frank hurried up to him and examined the prize. There could be no doubt that it was virgin gold and worth several hundred dollars.
Twenty minutes later it was Roswell's turn to hurrah, for he came upon one almost as large. And he did hurrah, too, and his friends joined in with a vigor that could not be criticised. Congratulating one another, the three paused but a few minutes to inspect the finds, when they were digging harder than ever.
"I think it is my turn," remarked Frank; "you fellows are becoming so proud, that if I don't find—by George, I have found it!"
Incredible as it seemed, it was true, and Frank's prize was larger than any of the others. Instantly they were at work again, glowing with hope and delight. No more nuggets were taken out that day, but the gravel revealed greater richness than at any time before.
Jeff Graham put in an appearance while they were eating supper, and, to the surprise of all, he was riding a tough little burro, which he had bought at Dawson for five hundred dollars. His eyes sparkled when he learned what had been done during his absence, but he quietly remarked, "I knowed it," and having turned his animal loose, after unloading him, he asked for the particulars.
Although it was quite cold, the four remained seated on the bowlders outside of their primitive dwelling, the men smoking their pipes and discussing the wonderful success they had had, and the still greater that was fairly within their grasp.
"We're not so much alone as I thought," remarked Jeff, "for there are fifty miners to the east and north, and some of them ain't far from where we've staked out our claim, and more are coming."
"They can't interfere with us?" was the inquiring remark of Roswell.
"Not much. As a rule, folks don't file their claims till they've struck onto a spot where the yaller stuff shows; but I've done both, 'cause I was sartin that we'd hit it rich. If anybody tried to jump our claim, the first thing I'd do would be to shoot him; then I'd turn him over to the mounted police that are looking after things all through this country."
"Ye mane that ye'd turn over what was lift of his remains," suggested Tim gravely.
"It would amount to that. Things are in better shape here than they was in the old times in Californy, where a man had to fight for what he had, and then he wasn't always able to keep it."
"What do you intend to do with the burro?" asked Frank.
"Let him run loose till we need him. He brought a purty good load of such things as we want, and I'm hoping he'll have another kind of load to take back," was the significant reply of the old miner.
This was the nearest Jeff came to particulars. His natural reserve as to what he had done and concerning his plans for the future prevented any further enlightenment. The fact that they had neighbors at no great distance was both pleasing and displeasing. Despite the assurance of their leader, there was some misgiving that when the richness of the find became known an attempt would be made to rob them. Gold will incite many men to commit any crime, and with the vast recesses of the Rocky Mountain spur behind them, the criminals might be ready to take desperate chances.
It was hardly light the next morning when the party were at it again. The pan or hand method of washing the gold is so slow and laborious that with the help and superintendence of Jeff a "rocker" was set up. This was a box about three feet long and two wide, made in two parts. The upper part was shallow, with a strong sheet-iron bottom perforated with quarter-inch holes. In the middle of the other part of the box was an inclined shelf, which sloped downward for six or eight inches at the lower end. Over this was placed a piece of heavy woollen blanket, the whole being mounted upon two rockers, like those of an ordinary child's cradle. These were rested on two strong blocks of wood to permit of their being rocked readily.
This device was placed beside the running stream. As the pay dirt was shovelled into the upper shallow box, one of the party rocked it with one hand while with the other he ladled water. The fine particles with the gold fell through the holes upon the blanket, which held the gold, while the sand and other matter glided over it to the bottom of the box, which was so inclined that what passed through was washed down and finally out of the box. Thin slats were fixed across the bottom of the box, with mercury behind them, to catch such particles of gold as escaped the blanket.
The stuff dug up by our friends was so nuggety that many lumps remained in the upper box, where they were detained by their weight, while the lighter stuff passed through, and the smaller lumps were held by a deeper slat at the further end of the bottom of the box. When the blanket became surcharged with wealth it was removed and rinsed in a barrel of water, the particles amalgamating with the mercury in the bottom of the barrel.
Sluicing requires plenty of running water with considerable fall, and is two or three times as rapid as the method just described, but since it was not adopted by our friends, a description need not be given.
At the end of a week Jeff, with the help of his companions, made a careful estimate of the nuggets and sand which they had gathered and stowed away in the cavern where they slept and took their meals. As nearly as they could figure it out the gold which they had collected was worth not quite one hundred thousand dollars—very fair wages, it will be conceded, for six days' work by two men and two boys. On Sunday they conscientiously abstained from labor, though it can hardly be said that their thoughts were elsewhere.
Since one hundred thousand dollars in gold weighs in the neighborhood of four hundred pounds, it will be seen that the party had already accumulated a good load to be distributed among themselves. It may have been that the expectation of this result caused Jeff to bring the burro back, for with his help it would not be hard to carry double the amount, especially as everything else would be left behind.
To the surprise of his friends, Jeff announced that it was necessary for him to make another visit to Dawson City. It was important business that called him thither, but he gave no hint of its nature. He hoped to be back within two or three days, and he departed on foot, leaving the animal to recuperate, and, as he grimly added, "make himself strong enough to carry a good load to town."
Jeff left early in the morning. The afternoon was about half gone, when Tim with an expression of anxious concern announced that he had just remembered something which required him to go to Dawson without an hour's delay.
"It's queer that I didn't think of the same while Jiff was here," he said, "so that he might have enj'yed the plisure of me society, but it won't be hard for me to find him after I git there. Ye byes wont be scared of being lift to yersilves fur a few days?" he asked with so much earnestness that they hastened to assure him he need have no misgivings on that point.
"We shall keep hard at it while you are away, but since Jeff is also absent we shall be lonely."
"Luk fur me very soon. I'll advise Jiff to make ye an extra allowance for yer wurruk while him and me is doing nothing."
Two hours after the departure of McCabe, Frank, who was working the rocker while his chum was shovelling in the dirt, suddenly stopped, with expanding eyes.
"I have just thought what Tim's business is at Dawson."
"What is it?"
"It is his longing for drink. He has gone on a spree, taking one of his nuggets with him to pay the cost. Jeff will be sure to run across him, and then there will be music."
A STARTLING DISCOVERY.
The weather was mild, for the short, oppressive Northwest summer was rapidly approaching. During the middle of the day the sun was hot, and the boys perspired freely. By and by would come the billions of mosquitoes to render life unbearable. Those pests often kill bears and wolves by blinding them, and the man who does not wear some protection is driven frantic, unable to eat, sleep, or live, except in smothering smoke. Jeff had said that he meant to complete the work, if possible, and start down the Yukon before that time of torment arrived.
For two days the boys wrought incessantly. They had learned how to wash and purify the gold in the crude way taught them by the old miner, and the rich reward for their labor continued. Jeff had brought back on his previous visit to Dawson City an abundant supply of strong canvas bags, in which the gold was placed, with the tops securely tied. These were regularly deposited in the cavern where the party made their home, until a row of them lined one side of the place. It was a striking proof of the wonderful richness of their find, that one of these bags was filled wholly with nuggets, which must have been worth fifteen or twenty thousand dollars.
Early on the afternoon of the third day another thought struck Frank Mansley, and he ceased shovelling gravel into the rocker for his companion.
"What is it now?" asked Roswell with a smile.
"Don't you remember that on the first day we arrived here, while we were prospecting up the little stream, we saw that friend of Ike Hardman?"
"Yes, of course."
"Well, we never told Jeff about it."
"I declare!" exclaimed Roswell. "How came we to forget it?"
"This gold drove it out of our minds. I never thought of it until this minute. I tell you, Roswell, I believe something has gone wrong."
And Frank sat down, removed his cap, and wiped his moist forehead with his handkerchief.
"What could have gone wrong?" asked the other lad, who, despite his jauntiness, shared in a degree the anxiety of his friend.
"All the gold we have gathered is in the cavern. I believe Hardman and those fellows are in the neighborhood and mean to steal it."
"It's a pity we didn't think of this before," said Roswell, laying down his shovel. "Let's go back to the cavern and keep watch till Jeff comes back."
Inspired by their new dread, they hastily gathered up what gold had been washed out, stowed it into another canvas bag, and then Frank slung it half filled over his shoulder and started for the cavern, something more than an eighth of a mile away.
They walked fast and in silence, for the thought in the mind of both was the same. From the first the most imprudent carelessness had been shown, and they could not understand how Jeff ever allowed the valuable store to remain unguarded. It is true, as has already been stated, that the section, despite the rush of lawless characters that have flocked thither, is one of the best governed in the world, and no officers could be more watchful and effective than the mounted police of the Northwest; but the course of our friends had much the appearance of a man leaving his pocketbook in the middle of the street and expecting to find it again the next day.
A bitter reflection of the boys was that this never would have been the case had they told Jeff of the presence of the suspicious individual in the neighborhood. If anything went amiss, they felt that the blame must rest with them If matters were found right, they would not leave the cavern until one or both of their friends returned.
When half the distance was passed, Roswell, who was in the load, broke into a lope, with Frank instantly doing the same. A minute later they had to slacken their pace because of the need to climb some bowlders and make their way through an avenue between massive rocks, but the instant it was possible they were trotting again.
It had been the custom for the gold-seekers to take a lunch with them to the diggings. This saved time, and their real meal was eaten in the evening after their return home.
The moment Roswell caught sight of the round, irregular opening which served as the door of their dwelling, he anxiously scanned it and the pile of wood and embers on the outside, where the fire was kindled for cooking purposes. The fact that he saw nothing amiss gave him hope, but did not remove the singular distrust that had brought both in such haste from the diggings.
He ran faster, while Frank, discommoded by the heavy, bouncing bag over his shoulder, stumbled, and his hat fell off. With an impatient exclamation he caught it up, recovered himself, and was off again.
As he looked ahead he saw Roswell duck his head and plunge through the opening.
"Is everything right?" shouted Frank, whose dread intensified with each passing second.
Before he could reach the door out came his cousin, as if fired by a catapult. His eyes were staring and his face as white as death.
"Right!" he gasped; "we have been robbed! All the gold is gone!"
And overcome by the shock the poor fellow collapsed and sank to the ground as weak as a kitten. Frank let the bag fall and straightened up.
"No; it cannot be," he said in a husky voice.
"Look for yourself," replied Roswell, swallowing a lump in his throat and turning his eyes pitifully toward his comrade.
A strange fear held Frank motionless for several seconds. Despite the startling declaration of his cousin, a faint hope thrilled him that he was mistaken, and yet he dared not peer into the interior through dread of finding he was not.
Reflecting, however, upon the childish part he was playing, he pulled himself together, and with the deliberation of Jeff Graham himself bent his head and passed through the door.
Enough sunlight penetrated the cavern to reveal the whole interior in the faint illumination. When they left that morning the row of canvas bags was neatly arranged along the farther wall, where they stood like so many corpulent little brownies.
Every one had vanished.
Frank Mansley stared for a moment in silence. Then he stepped forward and called in a strong, firm voice:
"Come, Roswell, quick!"
The other roused himself and hastily advanced.
"Take your revolver," said Frank, as he shoved his own into his hip-pocket, and begun strapping Jeff's cartridge belt around his waist. As Roswell obeyed, his cousin took the Winchester from where it leaned in one corner.
"Now for those thieves, and we don't come back till we find them."
THE TRAIL INTO THE MOUNTAINS.
On the outside of the cavern the boys halted. After the shock both were comparatively calm. Their faces were pale, and they compressed their lips with resolution. Some time during the preceding few hours thieves had entered their home and carried away one hundred thousand dollars in gold dust and nuggets, and the youths were determined to regain the property, no matter what danger had to be confronted.
But the common sense of the boys told them the surest way to defeat their resolve was to rush off blindly, with not one chance in a thousand of taking the right course.
"Roswell, that gold weighs so much that no one and no two men could carry it off, unless they made several journeys."
"Or there were more of them; they would hardly dare return after one visit."
"Why not? Hardman (for I know he is at the bottom of the business) and the other rogue have been watching us for several days. They knew that when we left here in the morning we would not come back till night, and they had all the time they needed and much more."
"But if there were only two, they would have to keep doubling their journey, and I don't believe they would do that. Perhaps they used the donkey."
"Let's find out."
The burro was accustomed to graze over an area several acres in extent and enclosed by walls of rocks. Since the first-mentioned brook ran alongside, the indolent creature could be counted upon to remain where the pasture was succulent and abundant. The place was not far off, and the boys hurried thither.
A few minutes later the suggestive fact became apparent—the donkey was gone.
"And he helped take the gold!" was the exclamation of Frank. "They loaded part of it on his back and carried the rest. I don't believe they are far off."
It was certain the thieves had not gone in the direction of the diggings, and it was improbable that they would attempt to reach Dawson City, at least, for an indefinite time, for they must have known that Jeff Graham and Tim McCabe had gone thither, and that there they were likely to be seen and recognized. At any rate, it would be hard for them to get away through the town for a considerable period, during which the grim old miner would make things warm for them.
The conclusion of the boys, therefore, after briefly debating the problem, was that the men had turned into the mountains. These stretched away for many miles, and contained hundreds of places where they would be safe from pursuit by a regiment of men.
"But if they took the burro," said Roswell, "as it seems certain they did, they must have followed some kind of a path along which we can pursue them."
"Provided we can find it."
They were too much stirred to remain idle. Frank led the way to the corner of the enclosure which was bisected by the brook. There the moistened ground was so spongy that it would disclose any footprint. The marks made by the hoofs of the burro were everywhere, and while examining what seemed to be the freshest, Roswell uttered an exclamation.
"What is it?" asked his cousin, hurrying to his side.
"Do you see that?" asked the other in turn, pointing to the ground.
There were the distinct impressions of a pair of heavy shoes. The burro had been loaded at the brook, or his new masters had allowed him to drink before starting into the mountains.
The boys took several minutes to study the impressions, which appeared in a number of places. The inspection brought an interesting truth to light. One set of imprints was large, and the right shoe or boot had a broken patch on the sole, which showed when the ground was more yielding than usual. The others were noticeably smaller, and the toes pointed almost straight forward, like those of an American Indian. A minute examination of the soil failed to bring any other peculiarity to light. The conclusion, therefore, was that only two men were concerned in the robbery.
The problem now assumed a phase which demanded brain work, and the youths met it with a skill that did them credit. The question was:
"If the burro was loaded with the gold at this point, or if he was brought hither, which amounts to the same thing, where did he and the thieves leave the enclosure?"
Neither of the boys had ever felt enough interest in the animal to make an inspection of his pasturage ground, and therefore knew nothing about it, but scrutinizing the boundaries, they fixed upon two gaps or openings on the farther side, both leading deeper into the mountains, one of which they believed had been used.
"Let's try the nearest," said Roswell, leading the way across the comparatively level space.
There the ground was higher, fairly dry and gravelly. A close scrutiny failed to reveal any signs of disturbance, and forced them to conclude that some other outlet had been taken. They made haste to the second.
This was drier and more gravelly than the other. While the soil seemed to have been disturbed, they could not make sure whether or not it was by the hoofs of an animal, but Frank caught sight of something on a projecting point of a rock, just in front. Stepping forward, he plucked it off, and held it up in the light. It consisted of a dozen dark, coarse hairs.
"That's where the burro scraped against the rock," he said. "We are on their path."
In their eagerness they would have kept beside each other had not the passage been so narrow. Often they came to places where one would have declared it impossible for a mule or donkey to make his way, but there could be no question that the property of Jeff Graham had done it. Frequently he slipped, and must have come near falling, but he managed to keep forward with his precious load.
Less than two hundred yards distant the pursuers came to a depression of the soil where it was damp, and the footprints of the donkey and the two men were as distinct as if made in putty. There could be no question that the boys were on the trail of the despoilers.
As they advanced, Frank, who was in advance; frequently turned his head and spoke in guarded tones over his shoulder to his cousin.
"They are pushing into the mountains," said he, "but there's no saying how far they are ahead of us."
"No; if they made the start early in the morning, it would give them a big advantage."
"I believe that is what they did, knowing there was no danger of our returning until night."
"That knowledge may have made them slow. Anyhow, they are not travelling as fast as we, and we must overtake them before long."
A few minutes later Frank asked:
"Do you believe they have thought of being followed?"
"They must know there is danger of it. They will fight to keep that gold, and if they get the first sight of us will shoot."
"They may have revolvers, but I don't believe either has a rifle. We will keep a lookout that we don't run into them before we know it and give them the advantage."
This dread handicapped the boys to some extent. The trail was not distinctly marked, often winding and precipitous, and compelling them to halt and examine the ground and consult as to their course.
While thus engaged, they awoke to the fact that they had gone astray and were not following the trail at all.
A SOUND FROM OUT THE STILLNESS.
The error occurred in this way: The trail that the boys had been assiduously following was so faintly marked that the wonder was they did not go astray sooner. In many places, there was little choice as to the route, because it was so broken and crossed that one was as distinct as the other. Nevertheless, Frank pressed on with scarcely any hesitation, until he again reached a depression where the soft ground failed to show the slightest impression of shoe or hoof.
"My gracious!" he exclaimed, stopping short and looking at his companion; "how far can we have gone wrong?"
"We can find out only by returning," replied Roswell, wheeling about and leading the way back.
They walked more hurriedly than before, as a person naturally does who feels that time is precious, and he has wasted a good deal of it.
The search might have been continued for a long time but for a surprising and unexpected aid that came to them. They had halted at one of the broken places, in doubt whither to turn, and searching for some sign to guide them, when Roswell called out:
"That beats anything I ever saw!"
As he spoke, he stooped and picked up something from the ground. Inspecting it for a moment, he held it up for Frank to see. It was a large nugget of pure gold.
"These mountains must be full of the metal," said Frank, "when we find it lying loose like that."
"Not so fast," remarked his companion, who had taken the nugget again, and was turning it over and examining it minutely. "Do you remember that?"
On one of the faces of the gold something had been scratched with the point of a knife. While the work was inartistic, it was easy to make out the letters "F. M."
"I think I remember that," said Frank; "it is one of the nuggets I found yesterday, and marked it with my initials. Those folks must have dropped it."
There could be no doubt of it. What amazing carelessness for a couple of men to drop a chunk of gold worth several hundred dollars and not miss it!
It must have been that the mouth of the canvas bag containing the nuggets had become opened in some way to the extent of allowing a single one to fall out.
"I wonder how many more have been lost," mused Frank, as he put the specimen in his pocket.
At any rate, it served to show the right course to follow, and the boys pressed on, looking more for nuggets than for their enemies. The mishap must have been discovered by the men in time to prevent its repetition, for nothing of the kind again met the eyes of the youths, who once more gave their attention to hunting for the lawless men that had despoiled them of so much property.
The trail steadily ascended, so broken and rough that it was a source of constant wonderment how the burro was able to keep his feet. He must have had some experience in mountain climbing before, in order to play the chamois so well.
The boys fancied they could feel the change of temperature on account of the increased elevation. They knew they were a good many feet above the starting-point, though at no time were they able to obtain a satisfactory view of the country they were leaving behind. They seemed to be continually passing in and out among the rocks and bowlders, which circumscribed their field of vision. Considerable pine and hemlock grew on all sides, but as yet they encountered no snow. There was plenty of it farther up and beyond, and it would not take them long to reach the region where eternal winter reigned.
A short way along the new course, and they paused before another break; but although the ground was dry and hard, it was easy to follow the course of the burro, whose hoofs told the story; and though nothing served to indicate that the men were still with him, the fact of the three being in company might be set down as self-evident.
It would not be dark until nearly 10 o'clock, so the pursuers still had a goodly number of hours before them.
A peculiar fact annoyed the boys more than would be supposed. The trail was continually winding in and out, its turns so numerous that rarely or never were they able to see more than a few rods in advance. In places the winding was incessant. The uncertainty as to how far they were behind the donkey and the men made the lads fear that at each turn as they approached it, they would come upon the party, who, perhaps, might be expecting them, and would thus take them unprepared. The dread of something like this often checked the boys and seriously retarded their progress.
"We may as well understand one thing," said Frank, as they halted again; "you have heard Jeff tell about getting the drop on a man, Roswell?"
"Yes; everybody knows what that means."
"Well, neither Mr. Hardman, nor his friend, nor both of them will ever get the drop on us."
The flashing eyes and determined expression left no doubt of the lad's earnestness.
"Is that because you carry a Winchester and they have only their revolvers?"
"It would make no difference if both of them had rifles."
Roswell was thoughtful.
"It is very well, Frank, to be brave, but there's nothing gained by butting your head against a stone wall. Suppose, now, that, in passing the next bend in this path, you should see Hardman waiting for you with his gun aimed, and he should call out to you to surrender, what would you do?"
"Let fly at him as quickly as I could raise my gun to a level."
"And he would shoot before you could do that."
"I'll take the chances," was the rash response.
"I hope you will not have to take any chances like that—"
They were talking as usual in low tones, and no one more than a few feet away could have caught the murmur of their voices, but while Roswell was uttering his words, and before he could complete his sentence, the two heard a sound, so faint that neither could guess its nature.
As nearly as they were able to judge, it was as if some person, in walking, had struck his foot against an obstruction. It came from a point in front, and apparently just beyond the first bend in the trail, over which they were making their way.
"We are nearer to them than we suspected," whispered Roswell.
"And they don't know it, or they wouldn't have betrayed themselves in that manner."
"It isn't safe to take that for granted."
Roswell, after the last change in their course, was at the front. Frank now quietly moved beyond him, Winchester in hand, and ready for whatever might come. Confident they were close upon the men they sought, he was glad of the misstep that had warned them of the fact.
There certainly could be no excuse now for Hardman and his companion securing the advantage over the boys, when one of them held his Winchester half raised to his shoulder and ready to fire.
Within a couple of paces of the turn in the trail the two were almost lifted off their feet by a sound that burst from the stillness, startling enough to frighten the strongest man. It was the braying of the burro, not fifty feet distant.
A TURNING OF THE TABLES.
The boys were in no doubt as to the author of this startling break in the mountain stillness. It was their own burro that had given out the unearthly roar, and they were confident of being close upon the trail of the two men who were making off with the gold. But a moment later, round the corner in front of them, the donkey's head came into view, his long ears flapping, as if training themselves for the fight with mosquitoes that would soon come. The animal was walking slowly, but the astonishing fact immediately appeared that he was not only without any load on his back, but was unaccompanied by either Hardman or his confederate.
Suspecting, however, they were close behind him, the boys held their places, the foremost still on the alert for the criminals. The burro came forward until within a rod, when he seemed to become aware for the first time of the presence of the youths in his path. He halted, twiddled his rabbit-like ears, looked at the two, and then opened his mouth. The flexible lips fluttered and vibrated with a second tremendous bray, which rolled back and forth among the mountains, the wheezing addendum more penetrating than the first part of the outburst.
As the animal showed a disposition to continue his advance, the boys stepped aside and he came slowly forward, as if in doubt whether he was doing a prudent thing; but he kept on, and, passing both, continued down the trail, evidently anxious to return to his pasturage.
"What does it mean?" asked Roswell.
"I have no idea, unless—"
"They can't make any further use of the burro, and have allowed him to go home."
"But they can't carry away all the gold."
"Then they are burying it. Let's hurry on, or we shall be too late."
Lowering his Winchester, Frank led the way up the trail, slackening his pace as he reached the bend, and partly raising his weapon again.
Rocks and bowlders were all around, but the trail still showed, and the donkey could have travelled indefinitely forward, so far as the boys could see. Nowhere was anything detected of the two men.
"They may have turned the burro loose a half mile off," said Frank, chagrined and disappointed beyond expression.
His companion warned him to be careful, as he began pushing forward at a reckless rate, as if fearful that the men would get away after all.
Just beyond the point where the burro had appeared the path forked, each course being equally distinct. The boys scrutinized the ground, but could not decide from what direction the animal had come. Had they possessed the patience, they might have settled the question by kneeling down and making their scrutiny more minute; but Frank could not wait.
"I'll take the right," he said, "while you follow the left. If you discover either of them, shoot and shout for me."
It may be doubted whether this was wise counsel, and Roswell did not feel himself bound by it, but he acted at once upon the suggestion. His weapon was in his grasp as he hurried over the path, and the cousins were quickly lost to each other.
The inspiring incentive to both boys was the dread that they were too late to recover the gold that had been stolen. Since its weight was too great for a couple of men to carry, the natural presumption was that they had buried or would bury it in some secure place, and return when it was safe to take it away.
Because of this, Roswell Palmer sharply scrutinized every part of his field of vision as it opened before him. There were numerous breaks in the path which permitted him to look over a space of several rods, and again he could not see six feet from him.
Reaching an earthy part of the trail, he leaned over and studied it. There was no sign of a hoof or footprint.
"The burro did not come this far," was his conclusion; "I am wasting time by wandering from Frank."
He was in doubt whether to turn or to advance farther. He had paused among the bowlders, where little was visible, and, convinced of his mistake, he shoved his weapon back in his pocket, so as to give him the freer use of his hands, and turned back over the trail along which he had just come.
He had not taken a dozen steps when he was checked by the most startling summons that could come to him. It was a gruff "Hands up, younker!"
It will be recalled that Roswell was less headstrong than his cousin, as he now demonstrated by his prompt obedience to the command, which came from an immense rock at the side of the path, partly behind him.
Having elevated his hands, the youth turned to look at his master. One glance at the countenance was sufficient. He was the individual whom Frank had seen secretly talking with Hardman on the boat that carried them from the head to the foot of Lake Lindeman, and whom both had seen on the day of their arrival in this neighborhood.
Roswell Palmer now displayed a quickness of wit that would have done credit to an older head. His revolver he had placed in a pocket on the side of him that was turned away from the man, and it will be remembered that the lad had placed it there before receiving the peremptory summons to surrender. In the hope that his captor was not aware that he carried any firearms, Roswell kept that part of his body farthest from him.
The man was standing at the side of the rock with a similar weapon in his grasp, and showed that he was elated over the clever manner in which he had gotten the best of the youth. His own weapon was not pointed at him, but held so that it could be raised and used on the instant.
"What do you mean by treating me thus when I am walking peaceably through the mountains, offering harm to no one?" asked Roswell with an injured air.