To Alaska for Gold/Chapter 26

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A nugget worth three thousand dollars was, by far, the largest find yet made in that district, and the three young miners could scarcely believe it true, as they surveyed the lump in Earl's hands.

"Do you suppose it's pure gold?" asked Randy, as he took it from his brother. "It's heavy enough."

"I think it's almost pure," said Earl. "We've struck it rich this time. Be sure and keep your mouth shut, both of you, or we'll have all of Gold Bottom up here," he added. "We've got at least four thousand dollars' worth of stuff out of there, so far, and goodness only knows how much more there is."

"Here come a couple of miners now," whispered Fred, happening to glance down the gulch. He dropped some of the smaller nuggets into his pockets, while Randy took care of the rest. Earl let the large lump fall into the dirt and covered it up with tundra muck.

"Well, pards, how air ye makin' it?" asked one of the miners, as he halted on the edge of the gulch.

"Oh, we're doing fairly well," answered Earl, as coolly as he could, although still highly excited. "Where are you bound?"

"Thought we'd try it over to Hunker Creek. Some good reports from there this week."

"So I've heard," said Randy. "I wonder if it would pay us to go over."

"It might—everybody has an equal chance, ye know," said the second miner. "Say, do ye calkerlate to git anything outer thet split?" he went on, with a look of disdain on his face.

"I thought I would see what was in it," said Earl. "If a fellow don't try, he'll never find anything."

"Ye won't git nuthin' out o' thar; the split don't lay right. Better go up to the top end o' your claim; ye'll stand more chance thar." And after a few words more the two miners moved off, and the boys breathed easier.

"That shows what he knows about it," said Earl, when he dared to broach the subject. "Wouldn't he open his eyes if he knew the truth?"

"And wouldn't he be in for squeezing a claim right on top of us? " added Randy. "No; we had best keep this find to ourselves, at least until we've found just what is in the split and how far away from the gulch it runs."

"Throw all the nuggets into the hole over yonder," said Earl, "and cover them up. We'll take them to the tent to-night, and bury them in some safe place. I'm going ahead." And he began to pick away as though his life depended upon it, while Randy and Fred went over the sand, gravel, and dirt with their shovels and hands, to pick out some small nuggets, which they found to the number of forty-three, some not larger than a grain of rice, and others the size of coffee beans.

"Here is another lump," said Earl, presently, and brought out a thin sheet of gold, mixed with stone. "I shouldn't wonder if there is a layer of quartz rock somewhere along here, although I don't see anything of it yet. I guess this lump will produce thirty or forty dollars' worth of gold more. Pretty good for five minutes' work." And he went at it again with renewed vigor, scattering the sand and gravel behind him, like a mother hen looking for worms.

An hour later the split was cleaned out so far as it could be accomplished with the tools at hand. There remained a small crack still, running downward three feet, as Earl ascertained by testing it with a berry-bush switch. What there might be at the bottom of the crack there was no telling, although it must contain some gold, if only in dust. Three additional nuggets had been unearthed, one as large as a pint measure and finer in appearance than any of the rest. Making sure they were not observed, the first nuggets were again brought forth, and each took a portion of them to carry home. The largest was tied up in Earl's coat, which he slung carelessly over his shoulder as he trudged along.

"Worth five to six thousand dollars if they are worth a cent," said Earl, as he surveyed the lot in the privacy of their tent. "And we haven't begun to wash up yet nor tested that little crack. This is the best luck yet."

Some of their findings had already been put down in a hole under the bedding in the tent. The hole was now opened and the new findings added, Earl first making a list of the nuggets, to give to his uncle. The ground was pounded down hard after this, so that if anybody wanted to dig the treasure up, he would find it a day's labor. Nearly all the miners buried their large finds, it being the only protection to be had.

On Saturday Mr. Portney came back, bringing with him three Indians loaded down with lumber and hardware. He was much surprised to see Fred, and was on the point of giving the lad a good talking to when Randy called him aside and explained the situation. Earl, also, put in a good word for Fred; and then, when the Indians were paid off and discharged, the subject was dropped, by both boys telling of the wonderful find which had been made. Of course Foster Portney was greatly interested, and he smiled when Randy particularly mentioned how Fred had brought out the first nugget and caused Earl to investigate further.

"You certainly deserve credit for that, Dobson," he said. "You shall have your full share of whatever the nugget proves to be worth. As for that little split, the only thing we can do is to blow it open with dynamite, and, luckily, I brought a can of the stuff from Dawson for just such an emergency."

Foster Portney had heard about Guardley, and had also heard that some Canadian mounted police, who had arrived at Dawson City, were on Tom Roland's trail. Guardley had turned up at Forty Mile Post whipped half to death, and it was doubtful whether he would get over his punishment.

On Sunday the question of whether Fred Dobson should remain as one of the party or not was fully discussed. The lad offered to work for nothing if only given his board and such clothing as he needed, and Randy and Earl said Fred could certainly cook as well as any of them and was getting more used to using a pick and a shovel every day. Seeing that his nephews wanted the runaway to be taken in, Mr. Portney at last said he would "let it go at that."

"I'll feed you and clothe you," he added, "and if we come out all right next spring I'll pay your passage back to Basco and give you a little extra in the bargain. But you've got to hustle the same as the rest of us; that is, as far as your strength and health will permit." And Fred said he understood and was thankful for the chance, and would do his level best. And he did do his level best from that hour forth. His experience had been a bitter one, but at the same time it had been the best in the world for him,—exactly what he needed.

The days which followed were busy ones. With the lumber brought in, Foster Portney and the boys constructed three sluice boxes, which, after completion, were set up at convenient points in the gulch, where the water might easily be turned on and off in them. Each box was fifteen feet long and a foot square, open at each end and at the top, the latter having a few braces across to keep the sides stiff. At the bottom of the box small cleats about an inch high were placed at intervals of fifteen inches apart, the last cleat, at the lower end of the box, being a trifle higher than the rest.

A sluice box done, it was carried to the spot selected for it and planted firmly, with its lower end in the stream and its upper end elevated from one to two feet. Then the upper end of the stream was run into it by means of a water trough. The box was "now ready for use. By shovelling dirt in at the upper end and allowing the water to run through, the dirt was gradually washed down and out at the lower end, leaving the heavy gold to settle to the bottom and pile up along the upper sides of the cleats previously mentioned. At night the water was turned aside and the day's accumulation of gold was scraped away from the cleats.

"We can do a good deal more with the boxes than we can with the pans," said Foster Portney. "And what washing we want to do must be done before cold weather sets in and the gulch freezes up."

It must not be supposed that the slit in the rocks had been forgotten. To the contrary, all hands had often spoken of it, and as soon as the sluice boxes were finished every one in the claim turned to the place. Two sticks of dynamite were placed in the slit and set off, and the rock blown into a thousand fragments.

The blast revealed an opening beneath the slit which was a yard wide and twice as deep. This opening was filled with loose sand and dirt, and at the bottom of all was a thick layer of gold dust, slightly mixed with silver. They scraped the dust up with great care, and found that it would very nearly fill a quart measure. They hunted eagerly for nuggets, but no more could be found, and the quartz rock Earl had hoped for failed to appear.

"Never mind; we can't expect too much luck," said Mr. Portney. "A heap of dust like this is find enough for one day. Let us scrape the hole thoroughly and cart the dirt down to the nearest sluice box." This was done and they examined the vicinity carefully for another slit, but none appeared. This pocket, like that on Prosper Gulch, was now exhausted, and with a sigh Randy and Earl turned away to the regular work of washing: for dust. Each had one of the boxes allotted to him, while Foster Portney took the third. Fred occupied his time between the three and in cooking the meals; and thus the balance of the summer slipped by until the day came when Mr. Portney announced that they must begin building a cabin and prepare for the long Alaskan winter which would speedily close in around them.