To Alaska for Gold/Chapter 21

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At the time of which I write, Dawson City was little better than a rude mining camp, containing, as has been previously mentioned, a half dozen board buildings and fifty tents, strung along what was known as the principal "street." Back in the timber land a rude saw-mill had been set up, and this was beginning to get out lumber at the moderate price of one hundred and twenty-five dollars per thousand feet!

A year before Dawson City had been unknown, but the rich finds of gold on Bonanza and Gold Bottom creeks had caused the miners to leave Circle City and Forty Mile Post and boom the new El Dorado, as it was termed, and the settlement grew as if by magic. From the wild rush to stake claims many rows resulted, but the cooler heads speedily took matters in hand, and each man was allowed a claim from five to fifteen hundred feet long and extending the width of the creek or gulch in which it was located.

These claims were not located upon the Klondike River, which joins the Yukon at Dawson City, as has been often supposed, but upon the little watercourses running into the Klondike. These gold-bearing diggings are, or were, variously called Bonanza, Gold Bottom, and Bear creeks, which flow into the Klondike direct, and Hunker, Last Chance, El Dorado, Adams, Shantantay, and other creeks and semi-wet gulches which are tributaries to the creeks first named. The names were arbitrary, and were often changed to suit the miners' tastes.

To Randy and Earl, the camp presented the appearance of having "just moved in," as the younger brother termed it. On every side were miners' outfits stacked in little piles, while their owners were either at hand erecting tents, or off prospecting or buying supplies. There was but one store, a rude board building not over twenty by thirty feet, in which everything on hand was offered at most extravagant prices. Flour sold for sixty dollars per barrel, beans fifty cents per pound, bacon and canned meats seventy-five cents per pound, and other goods in proportion. There were no fresh meats excepting two sides of beef just brought in by the little flat-bottomed steamboat from Circle City, and which were rapidly disposed of at two dollars to five dollars per pound. A crate of eggs were at hand, to be purchased at one dollar per dozen, but as most of the eggs were stale, the contents of the crate went begging. Of miners' tools, a pick or a shovel brought ten dollars to fifteen dollars, while washing pans were not to be found, and had to be manufactured by the miners themselves. Wearing apparel was also scarce, and Earl saw twenty dollars given for a flannel shirt, and five dollars for a pair of socks, both articles being paid for in gold dust.

As it was evening, most of the miners had given up work and come into the camp to talk, trade, and learn the latest news. Every one was in a quiver of excitement, and the announcement that an extra good find had been made on Hunker Creek caused many to strike out during the night to make new claims in that vicinity.

"Let us go, too!" cried Randy, and Earl joined in; but the men talked it over and decided to remain in Dawson City until they learned more about the "lay of the land." They pitched their tent as close to where their boat lay as possible, but it is doubtful if any of the party slept through that short night, which had hardly anything of darkness.

All told, there were not over six hundred white men in camp, and, in addition, there were perhaps a hundred Indians, with their squaws, children, and dogs; for no Alaskan Indian family is complete without from one to a half-dozen canines attached. The Indians were there to sell fish and game, and to pick up odd jobs of pack-carrying. They took but little interest in the gold strikes, and it was but rarely that they could be found mining, and then never for themselves.

One of the first lessons to be learned by the boys and the others, was that of keeping their outfits intact. Hardly were they up in the morning than a dozen miners and prospectors came shuffling around offering them various prices for this and that. Had they been willing to sell, they could have disposed of all they possessed by noon, but, cautioned by Foster Portney, they were firm, and nothing was allowed to change hands but a small bottle of cough syrup which the doctor sold for an ounce of gold, worth sixteen dollars, to a poor fellow suffering with a slight attack of pneumonia. The doctor wanted no pay, but the miner insisted on giving it, saying he would pay a thousand dollars if the physician would make him as well and strong as ever again.

After many careful inquiries, it was decided that the party should first try its luck on Gold Bottom Creek, at some spot near to where the watercourse was joined by Hunker and Last Chance creeks. They had learned that while Bonanza and El Dorado creeks were paying well, all the best claims in those localities were already staked out.

Two days later found them encamped at the entrance to a tiny watercourse, which flowed into Gold Bottom Creek. They had come in from the Klondike with their outfits on their backs and half a dozen Indians to aid them, for the trail was over rough rocks and through lowlands of berry bushes and tundra,—a wearisome walk which to Randy, at least, seemed to have no end. Often they sank up to their knees in the muck and cold water, and once the doctor got "stuck" and had to be hauled forth by main strength and minus one boot, which was afterward recovered. A promising spot was reached by nightfall, the Indians were paid and sent off, and they set about making themselves a home, temporary or permanent, as fortune might elect.

A flat surface on the side of a small hill was selected, and the tents were placed end to end, as before, but tightened down to stay. Then a trench was dug around the sides and the back, so that when it rained the water might drain off. This done, the interior was carpeted with small branches of pine and evergreen.

"A good, healthful smell," said the doctor, referring to the greens; "and one that will ward off many a cold. On the top of those branches one ought to sleep almost as comfortably as on a feather bed."

The interior of the tents arranged, a fireplace was next in order, a semicircular affair of stone, in which the sheet-iron stove might be sheltered from the wind. Then came a cache for the provisions to be stored away; and their domestic arrangements were complete.

It was bright and early on the day following that all hands set off to prospect along the bottom of the gulch, which the boys had named Prosper. They were divided into two parties, the doctor and the captain in one, and the boys and their uncle in the other. The latter turned up to the left arm of the gulch and presently came to a little hollow, where the tiny stream of water flowing along had deposited some coarse sand to a depth of eight to twenty inches.

"Now we'll shovel up some of this sand in the pan and see what it amounts to," said Foster Portney. " Don't take what is right on top, boys. If there is any gold, it is down next to the bed rock. And don't fill the pan too full." The boys worked eagerly, and soon had the pan nearly full of the sand. Mr. Portney then carried it to a nearby pool and allowed the water to run over the top, then brushed off the surface and began to "wash down." This took several minutes, and Randy and Earl stood by almost breathless during the process.

At last only a handful of sand and dirt remained at the bottom of the pan. All three examined it with care. Here and there could be seen a tiny grain of dull yellow.

"That is gold," explained Foster Portney. "But there is hardly enough to pay; probably three or four cents' worth in all."

"Is that all!" cried Randy, and his voice was full of disappointment. Earl said nothing, but gathered up the pick and shovel and moved on.

In two days a dozen other spots had been tried with even worse success, and the three in the party began to imagine that the gulch was of no consequence, so far as staking a claim there was concerned. To add to their discomfiture a miner came along who said he had gone all over that locality a month previous.

"Ain't nothin' thar," he announced; "nothin' wuth over four or five cents a panful. Better try your luck elsewar, friends."

"We'll put in another day over here," announced Foster Portney. "One day won't count very much, and ground is often gone over a dozen times before the right strike is made."

They had brought a lunch with them, and now sat down on the edge of a small stony cliff to eat it. The boys were tremendously hungry and could have devoured twice as much as what was on hand, but they were beginning to learn that short rations would be something to look forward to for some time to come.

Having eaten what was allotted to him. Randy began to poke around with the pick, while his uncle and Earl still rested. The cliff was divided into two sections, and between was a lot of rotten stone, dirt, muck, and rubbish. Striking the pick deeply into this. Randy loosened a portion of the stone, and out it rolled into the gulch, bringing the dirt and a good portion of the rubbish after it. He began to scatter the stuff to the right and the left when something shiny caught his eye, and stooping he picked it up, while his heart leaped into his throat.

"Uncle Foster! Earl! Look at this!" he cried, and ran to them, holding up the object as he did so. It was larger than an egg and quite heavy. Foster Portney gave one glance and then leaped forward, dropping what food still remained in his hand.

"Where did you find it, Randy?" he exclaimed.

"Over yonder," was the hasty reply. "But is it gold, Uncle Foster?"

"Yes, Randy, it's a nugget as sure as you're born—a nugget worth at least two hundred dollars. And what's better yet," went on Mr. Portney as Randy began to dance with delight, "the chances are that there are more where this came from!"