To Alaska for Gold/Chapter 1

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"It is not a question of what we should like to do, Randy; it is a question of what we must do."

"I know it, Earl. One thing is certain: the way matters stand we can't pay the quarter's rent for this timber land to-morrow unless we borrow the money, and where we are going for it I haven't the least idea."

"Nor I. It's a pity the Jackson Lumber Company had to go to pieces. I wonder where Jackson is."

"In Canada most likely. They would put him in jail if they could catch him, and he knows it."

"He ought to be put in jail!" burst out Earl, who was the elder of the two Portney brothers. "That two hundred dollars he cheated us out of would just put us on our feet. But without it we can't even pay bills now owing; and Caleb Norcross is just aching to sell this land to Dan Roland."

"If we have to get out, what are we to do?" questioned Randy, soberly. "I don't believe we can get work, unless we go into the woods as mere choppers."

"We shall have to do something," was Earl's unsatisfactory response.

The Portney brothers lived upon a small timber claim in the state of Maine. Their parents had died three years before, from injuries received in a terrible forest fire, which had at that time swept the locality. The family had never been rich, and after the sad affair the boys were left to shift for themselves. The father had owned an interest in a timber claim, and this had been sold for three hundred dollars, and with the proceeds the two brothers had rented another claim and gone to work to get out lumber for a new company which had begun operations in the vicinity.

Earl was now eighteen years of age, and Randolph, or Randy, as he was always called, was nearly seventeen. Both lads were so tall, well-built, and muscular, that they appeared older. Neither had had a real sickness in his life, and the pair were admirably calculated, physically, to cope with the hardships which came to them later.

The collapse of the new lumber combination, and the running away of its head man, Aaron Jackson, had proved a serious blow to their prospects. As has been intimated, the company owed them two hundred dollars for timber, and, as not a cent was forthcoming, they found themselves in debt, not only for the quarter's rent for the land they were working, but also at the general supply store at the village of Basco, three miles away. The boys had worked hard, early and late, to make both ends meet, and it certainly looked as if they did not deserve the hard luck which had befallen them.

It was supper time, and the pair had just finished a scanty meal of beans, bread, and the remains of a brook trout Randy had been lucky enough to catch before breakfast. Randy threw himself down on the doorstep, while Earl washed and dried the few dishes.

"I wonder if we can't get something out of the lumber company," mused the younger brother, as he gazed meditatively at his boots, which were sadly in need of soling and heeling. "They've lots of timber on hand."

"All covered by a mortgage to some Boston concern," replied Earl. "I asked Squire Dobson about it. He said we shouldn't get a penny."

"Humph!" Randy drew a deep breath. "By the way, has Squire Dobson learned anything about Fred, yet?"

"He's pretty sure Fred ran away to New York."

"I can't understand why he should run away from such a good home, can you? You wouldn't catch me doing it."

"He ran away because he didn't want to finish studying. Fred always was a wild Dick. I shouldn't wonder if he ended up by going out West to hunt Indians." Earl gave a short laugh. "He'll have his eye-teeth cut one of these days. Hullo, here comes Caleb Norcross now!"

Earl was looking up the winding road through the woods, and, gazing in the direction. Randy saw a tall, lean individual, astride a bony horse, riding swiftly toward the cabin.

"Well, boys, what's the best word?" was the sharp greeting given by Caleb Norcross, as he came to a halt at the cabin door.

"I don't know as there is any best word, Mr. Norcross," replied Earl, quietly.

"I was over to Bill Stiger's place and thought if I could see you to-niglit about the rent money, it would save you a three miles' trip to-morrow."

"You know we can't pay you just at present, Mr. Norcross," went on Earl. "The suspension of the lumber company has left us in the lurch."

The face of the tall, lean man darkened. "How much did they stick you for?" he asked abruptly.

"Two hundred dollars."

"Two hundred dollars! You were fools to trust 'em that much. I wouldn't have trusted 'em a cent—not a penny."

"They were well recommended," put in Randy. "Even Squire Dobson trusted them."

"That don't make no difference. I don't trust folks unless I know what I'm doing. Although I did trust you boys," added Caleb Norcross, hastily. "Your father was always a straight man."

"And we are straight, too," burst out Randy, stung by the insinuation. "You shall have your money, if only you will give us a little time."

"How are you going to get it?"

"We'll earn it," said Earl. "I am sure we can get out enough timber by fall to square accounts."

"That won't do for me—not at all. If you can't pay up to-morrow, you can consider your claim on the land at an end."

"You won't give us any time?"

"No. I can sell this whole section to Dan Roland, and I'm going to do it."

"You are very hard-hearted, Mr. Norcross," began Randy, when a look from his elder brother silenced him.

"I ain't hard-hearted—I'm only looking after my own," growled Caleb Norcross. "If I let things run, I'd do as the lumber company did—bust up. So you can't pay, nohow?"

"No, we can't pay," answered Earl. "Then I'll expect you to quit by to-morrow noon."

Without waiting for another word, Caleb Norcross turned around his bony steed and urged him forward. In less than a minute he had disappeared in the direction whence he had come. With sinking hearts the boys watched him out of sight.

The blow they had dreaded had fallen, and for several seconds neither spoke. Then Randy, who had pulled off one boot, flung it across the kitchen floor.

"I don't care, he can have his old place," he cried angrily. "We'll never get rich here, if we stay a hundred years. I'm sick and tired of cutting timber just for one's meals!"

"It's all well enough to talk so, Randy," was the elder brother's cautious response. "But where are we to go if we leave here?"

"Oh, anywhere! We might try our luck down in Bangor, or maybe Boston."

Earl smiled faintly. "We'd cut pretty figures in a city, I'm thinking, after a life in the backwoods."

"A backwoods boy became President."

"Do you wish to try for the presidency?"

"No; but it shows what can be done; and I'm tired of drudging in the woods, without any excitement or anything new from one year's end to another. Father and mother gave us pretty good educations, and we ought to make the most of that."

"I knew he wanted to sell this land to Dan Roland," went on Earl, after a pause. "I fancy he is going to get a good price, too."

"If Roland pays over five hundred dollars he will get cheated. The timber at the south end is good for nothing."

The boys entered the cabin, lit the lamp, and sat down to discuss the situation. It was far from promising, and, an hour later, each retired to bed in a very uneasy frame of mind. They were up before daybreak, and at breakfast Earl announced his intention to go to Basco and see what could be done.

"You might as well stay at home," he continued. "It may be Norcross will come back and reconsider matters."

"Not he!" exclaimed Randy; nevertheless, he promised to remain and look over some clothing which needed mending, for these sturdy lads were in the habit of doing everything for themselves, even to sewing up rents and darning socks. Such are the necessities of real life in the backwoods.

It was a bright sunny morning, well calculated to cheer any one's spirits, yet Randy felt far from lighthearted when left alone. He could not help but wonder what would happen next.

"We've got just twenty-eight dollars and a half in cash left," he mused, as he set to work to replace some buttons on one of Earl's working shirts. "And we owe about six dollars at the general store, three dollars and a quarter for those new axes and the coffee mill, and twenty to Norcross. Heigh-ho! but it's hard lines to be poor, with one's nose continually to the grindstone. I wonder if we shouldn't have done better if we had struck out, as Uncle Foster did six years ago? He has seen a lot of the world and made money besides."

Earl had expected to be gone the best part of the forenoon, and Randy was surprised, at half-past nine, to see his elder brother returning from the village. Earl was walking along the road at the top of his speed, and as he drew closer, he held up a letter.

"It's a letter from Uncle Foster!" he cried, as soon as he was within speaking distance. "It's got such wonderful news in it that I thought I ought to come home with it at once."

"Wonderful news?" repeated Randy. "What does he say?"

"He says he is going back to Alaska,—to some new gold field that has just been discovered there,—and he wants to know if we will go with him."