To Alaska for Gold/Chapter 12

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As Randy had explained, Earl had stopped on the trail to fix his boot. In crossing the mountain stream he had shipped a lot of water, and he sat down on a rock and held up his foot, to allow the water to run out on the ground.

Unfortunately for the youth he had rested on a rock which was by no means secure on the bank of the stream, and now, as he leaned to one side, the rock slipped from its resting-place, and down went poor Earl into the water head first. As luck would have it, he struck in some loose sand, otherwise he would have been seriously injured. Even as it was he was stunned for the moment, and before he could turn he had gulped down a great deal of water. He was nearly blinded by some fine sand getting into his eyes and began, to flounder around as though in the midst of an ocean instead of a watercourse less than fifty feet wide and five feet deep.

It took several minutes for him to save himself by reaching a large rock in the centre of the stream. Collecting his scattered senses, he cleared his eyes as best he could and took a view of his situation.

The rock was six feet in diameter and two feet above the top of the water. On either side flowed the stream at a rate which he knew would be quite sufficient to take him off his feet should he attempt to ford to shore. What was to be done in this emergency he did not at first know. The others had gone on ahead, and although he called to them, no one heard his cry.

Had he had his gun he would have fired it, had the weapon been in condition. But less than quarter of an hour before he had passed the fowling-piece over to Captain Zoss, the captain having asked to inspect it. He must help himself, or go without assistance.

Standing on the rock, he saw that escape to either side was out of the question, and escape up the stream was also cut off. Below, however, were a series of rocks running off to shore, and after some hesitation he dropped into the stream and allowed himself to be carried down to these rocks. Five minutes of struggling in the current found him safe on the opposite shore to that upon which the lower portion of the trail to Chilkoot Pass lay. The question now was, how to get back to the other side of the river.

"I'll walk along on this side until I get a chance to cross over," he said, half aloud, and then the loneliness of his situation dawned upon him. He struck out without delay, determined to catch up with the others of the party as quickly as possible. For the first quarter of a mile Earl did very well, but soon he noted to his dismay that the stream was widening, and that, consequently, he was getting further and further away from the other side. He had been making his way along a cliff lined with short firs. Now the cliff came to an abrupt end, and beyond he beheld nothing but a mass of jagged rocks and a jungle of brush, to pass through which would be next to impossible.

"Stumped now!" he muttered to himself, and his face fell as he surveyed his situation. The stream at this point was all of one hundred and fifty feet wide, and the trail opposite was not close to the water's edge, but wound in behind the rocks and fir trees.

"I've got to get over to that trail, that's certain!" he went on, after a disagreeable pause. "Here goes to try the water again," and with extreme care he began the descent of the cliff, which was some twenty feet high. The bottom was reached in safety, and he found himself standing in water and sand half up to his knees.

Because of the widening of the stream at this point the current was not so strong, and he began to wade in deeper and deeper, until one-quarter of the width had been passed and he found himself up to his waist. He shivered with the cold and felt like going back, but a few steps more brought him to a sand-bar, where the water scarcely touched his knees. Overjoyed at this, he attempted to follow up the bar, soon reaching and passing the middle of the river. He was wading on more confidently than ever, when of a sudden the bar came to an end, and down he plunged into a pool over his head.

The one thing to do now was to swim, and Earl struck out boldly for the shore, still thirty feet away. The weight of his heavy clothing was against him, and the current carried him on and on down the stream and toward a mass of jagged rocks fearful to behold. Had he been of a less rugged temperament the cold water might have given liim both a chill and a cramp.

Five minutes of fearful anxiety passed, and Earl was almost exhausted, when, putting his foot down, he struck bottom at a depth of four feet. This encouraged him, and he renewed his effort to reach the bank beyond. Yet another pool had to be crossed, and when finally he did pull himself out of the stream and safe up on a sloping rock he was too exhausted to do aught but lie down on his side and pant for breath.

It was here that Randy and his uncle found him, just as he was making an effort to gain his feet and continue his search for them. They were overjoyed to learn that he had not suffered serious injury. They called to Captain Zoss and Dr. Barwaithe, who were close by, and soon all were together again.

Captain Zoss had an extra shirt in his pack, and this Earl borrowed, along with a dry coat belonging to his uncle. Both articles of wearing apparel were too large for him, but he gladly exchanged them, for the time being, for his wet ones; and then the delayed journey toward Sheep Camp was continued.

When the resting-place for the night was gained, it was found that all of the Indians had come in over an hour before and had sought out a comfortable camp for them under a large overhanging rock. A number of others had also arrived, and over a dozen tents had been pitched in addition to those already there. According to lot, it was Randy's turn to get a meal ready, and he set to work without delay, starting a roaring fire of pine branches and logs, that Earl might warm and dry himself. Dr. Barwaithe had brought with him a newly patented sheet-iron camp stove, and on this a pot of water was soon boiling, to be used in making coffee, while Randy also offered them fried potatoes and a deliciously cooked fish one of the Indians brought in.

Outside of the doctor, who was not used to walking over such rough ground, no one felt any ill effects of the day's journey, although all were glad to turn in at the earliest possible moment. The doctor had worn a slight blister on his heel, and, in order to prevent this giving him serious concern later, he put some salve on it and bound it up before retiring.

Ere they crawled into the tent, both boys took a look at the great, white mountains, which loomed up before them. Here was the entrance to Chilkoot Pass, and there, almost lost among the clouds, was the dreaded summit, with mountains still higher on either side of it. Randy drew closer to Earl as he surveyed the awe-inspiring scene.

"Earl, we've got an everlasting hard climb before us," he whispered. "Do you think we'll make it?"

"We must make it, Randy," was the low and earnest reply. "It won't do to show the white feather now. Uncle would never forgive us."

"Some parts of it look like crawling up the side of a house," and Randy shuddered. "If a fellow should fall, he'd break his neck sure."

"I guess you're right, Randy; although it may not be so bad when one is right on top of it. There is a sort of a trail, you know, although it's not much. I heard Salmon Head tell Uncle he hoped it would be cold to-morrow night, and that we should start for the Pass about four or five o'clock in the afternoon. I wonder what he meant by that."

"I heard Captain Zoss speaking of it. They start toward evening so as to pass the deepest snows on the summit about midnight when a crust forms to walk on, for at this season of the year the deep snows are too soft to be trusted when the sun is shining."

"And what happens to a fellow, I wonder, if he breaks through the snow?"

"I don't know, I'm sure—I guess he goes to kingdom come," and Kandy shuddered again. "We'll know all about it by this time to-morrow night." And then both boys retired, to dream of perilous climbs over the snow-clad mountains and fearful falls into gigantic crevasses, until both awoke in a fright and covered with cold perspiration.

It was not until late that anybody was stirring the next day. It was Earl's turn to get breakfast, and he told them if they would wait he would treat them to freshly baked beans and hot bread; and all waited. While Earl was at work, with Randy helping him, two of the Indian boys came up, and their efforts at making themselves understood were laughable. Finally Randy made out that they wanted an old silk neckerchief he possessed, and he gave it to Tomablink, the older youth, who was as proud of the article as if it had been worth a small fortune.

Under the advice of Foster Portney, all took it easy in camp that day, in order to reserve their strength for the struggle to come. Even the Indians seemed to grow a bit uneasy concerning what was before them; for, although they had climbed over the Pass a number of times, they well knew what a rough and highly dangerous proceeding each new trip was likely to be. On this terrible Pass more than one Indian and white man had been lost, never to be heard of again.

At last, at exactly four o'clock in the afternoon, Salmon Head announced his readiness to start. As chief of the Indian party, he had looked to it that each carrier's pack was properly adjusted, and now he gave several directions to the whites to the effect that they should keep together as much as possible and always in sight of his own people.

"Don't think there be an easy this way or that," he said in broken English. "Indian know best way in the end—you follow him day and night, or you lost. Stick foot deep down when climb, and no let go with hands."

His manner was so earnest, all promised to remember his words. Then the crowd of whites and Indians was gathered together, the tents were struck and packed; and the terrifying journey over the dreadful Chilkoot Pass was begun.