To Alaska for Gold/Chapter 27

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Mr. Portney and the boys had long since decided where the cabin should be built, up against the side of a cliff, ten feet in height, which overlooked the head of the gulch. All the miners in the locality had agreed that this would be the best spot, and six cabins were to be placed there, for hospitality's sake if for no other reason. Mr. Portney had already ordered the dressed lumber needed from the saw-mill; but as this was costly stuff, and expensive to transport, Earl and Randy had declared their intention to go into the timber back of the cliff and get out whatever of rough wood could be made to do.

"We're not going in for style," declared Earl. "You can get the window frames and glass, and the door and the finishing boards, and we'll get out the rest, won't we, Randy?" And his brother agreed with him.

A week later found the party building in earnest. Over a hundred dollars' worth of lumber had been purchased, and it had cost as much again to bring it over. In the meantime Earl and Randy, aided by Fred, had brought out from the woods four sticks of timber for the corner posts of the cabin and had whip-sawed two-score of rough boards. With this material they went to work, and four pairs of willing hands soon caused the building to take definite shape. Seeing them at work, the other miners also got at it, and soon there was sawing and hammering all day long beneath the cliff.

Of necessity the cabin was a simple affair. It was set partly on the flat rock and partly on the hard ground, and was twenty feet wide by twelve feet deep, the back resting almost against the cliff. In the front was a door and a window, and there was another window at the end nearest to the door. Inside, a spare blanket divided the space into two compartments, the first, the one having the door, being the general living-room, and the second being the sleeping-room. In the living-room was placed a cooking-stove, a rude table, and four home-made chairs, while the sleeping-room was provided with four bunks, ranged along the rear and end walls. Later on a closet was built for the cooking-utensils, but for the present these were piled up in a corner.

Foster Portney was very particular that all the cracks in the side walls of the cabin should be filled in with mud, and the top, which was nearly on a level with the cliff, was also made water and wind tight, excepting where a circular hole was left for the upper section of a stovepipe.

As soon as the cabin was in habitable shape, an account of all the provisions on band was taken. It was found that the canned vegetables had run low and that they also needed more flour. A list of necessities was made out, and Earl and his uncle started away to Dawson City to purchase them, knowing that prices were advancing every day and that the goods on hand at the store were liable to give out long before the demand for them should cease.

Fred had asked to go out into the woods to see what he could shoot, he being a fairly good shot and thoroughly familiar with the use of a gun. It was thought best not to let him go alone, and he and Randy went together, leaving the cabin in care of the miners who were building close at hand.

The hunt in the woods was hardly a success. After tramping around for two hours they brought down several birds of a species unknown to them and one small deer, smaller than any Randy had ever seen in Maine. Otherwise the woods were bare of game, and by the middle of the afternoon they gave it up.

"When Earl comes back I'll ask my uncle to let the three of us go over to the river," said Randy. "I've heard there are good chances there for wild goose, snipe, and plover."

"Yes, and we might put in a day fishing. Even salt and smoked fish wouldn't go bad during the winter," added Fred. He was growing hardy and strong and took a deep interest in all that was going on.

It was two days before Mr. Portney and Earl returned, bringing with them all they and two Indians could carry. The provisions included an extra hundred pounds of flour, for which they had paid fifty dollars, some canned peas and tomatoes, fifteen pounds of dried apples and California apricots, and some coffee, sugar, salt, and smoked bacon. In an extra package Earl also carried a beefsteak weighing two pounds and for which he had paid five dollars.

"It's Randy's birthday to-morrow," he said, "and we're going to celebrate in a style I know you'll all admire." And every one laughed and agreed with him, for they had not had any fresh beef since leaving the steamboat at Dyea.

Foster Portney was quite willing that the three boys should take a trip over to the Yukon to see what could be found in the way of fish and game, and it was arranged that they should be gone three days. The start was made on Monday morning.

They travelled altogether by compass through the woods, managing on the way to knock over enough birds to serve them for their meals. On the morning of the second day they struck the Yukon about midway between Dawson City and Ogilvie. As they came in sight of the broad stream Earl halted the crowd and pointed straight ahead.

"Look at the snipe!" he said. "Now is our chance. Let us all fire together!"

Randy and Fred had borrowed shot-guns from their neighbors, and at the signal three reports rang out, and eight of the birds came down. A second shot from Randy, whose gun had a double barrel, brought down three more; and from that hour on the sport began, lasting until well into the evening, when they had twenty snipe, six plover, and eight wild geese to their credit.

As late as it was. Earl determined to try his hand at fishing, and soon had his line out. There were a few minutes of waiting, then the bait was taken like a flash, and there followed a lively struggle between the youth and a salmon which weighed over fifteen pounds. Several times Earl thought he had lost his catch, but each time he recovered, and finally the salmon came in close enough to be swung on shore. Even then he flopped around so lively that Fred had to quiet him by a blow from the stock of his gun.

Earl's success had fired the others, and soon they were fishing in the pale-blue twilight of the night. They kept it up until after twelve o'clock, when they turned in with a catch of three salmon, several whitefish, and a burbot, which Randy at first took for a codfish. They slept soundly, and early in the morning tried the sport again, starting for home at about noon, and arriving there with their burdens some time after midnight, worn out but happy.

It was found that Foster Portney had not been idle during their absence. From time to time, as the canned eatables were disposed of, they had saved the tins, and now he had cleaned them out and filled some with such berries as still remained on the bushes about the gulch. To seal the cans up he had brought from Dawson City a stick of lead, and for an iron had used the end of a broken pick.

"That will give us some fresh berries," he said. "And along with canned salmon, and salted and smoked whitefish, burbot, and wild goose, I reckon we'll get along fairly well, unless the winter proves an extra long one."

As much as they felt the necessity of preparing for winter, Randy and Earl hated to lose the time when there was the chance to make so much money at the sluice boxes. So as soon as they were able, they got down to the gulch again, and never did two lads work harder. They were accompanied by Fred, and a day later their uncle also joined them.

The dirt from the pocket had been cleaned up, and it had yielded over twenty ounces of gold. They were now working on the regular sand and gravel scraped from the bedrock of the gulch, and though this did not pay so well, yet it brought in enough to make them all satisfied. There was a good deal of excitement, too, when it came to cleaning out the sluice boxes, for almost every day one or another found a nugget, sometimes small, and then again as large as a walnut.

"How much do you think we are averaging?" asked Randy, one day, and his uncle replied that he could not figure very closely, but he would put it down as over a hundred dollars per day. This meant twenty-five dollars a day as the boy's share, and he felt more content than ever to slave along in the gulch.

For it was slaving along, this constantly picking and digging and carting the dirt, sand, and gravel to the sluice boxes and throwing it in. Every night Randy's back ached, and sometimes he would come in with feet that were sopping wet, and covered up to his waist with mud and muck. And then he took a touch of the chills and fever, and was down on his back for a week with only Fred to wait on him. The chills and fever went the rounds, and Foster Portney and Earl were stricken at the same time. Fred was the last to catch it; and by the time he had recovered, winter was at hand.

The first indication was a rawness in the air, which made them shiver when they turned out in the morning. Then the bushes and the trees quickly lost their leaves, and three days later ice formed in the marshes back of the gulch. The sun came up as usual, but it seemed to have lost its warmth, and all were glad enough to keep on their coats even when working.

"Two more weeks will fetch it," observed Foster Portney. "We had better wash out as much dirt as possible before the water stops running."

Ten days later the thermometer went down with a rush, dropping from fifty-six to but twenty above zero. Going down to the gulch, they found the stream covered with ice, which was half an inch thick. By the next day there was no water to be found, only ice, and even the piles of sand, gravel, and dirt were frozen stiff. A heavy dulness, which oppressed them greatly, hung in the air. Winter had come, and gold washing for that season was a thing of the past.