To Alaska for Gold/Chapter 28

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Although everything in the gulch was frozen up, it must not be supposed that mining there came to an end. While it was true no more washing could be done that season, there was dirt, gravel, and sand to be heaped in convenient spots, ready for the first run of water in the spring.

At one end of the claims there was a bank which had been examined by Foster Portney and found to contain very rich pay dirt, and this bank was now attacked by all hands and the dirt brought out to the nearest sluice box. To thaw the ground a fire was built up against the bank every night and allowed to burn until morning. Even in extremely cold weather this thawed the bank to a depth of several feet, and when they had scooped out a hole which resembled a baker's oven the thawing-out process was still more effectual.

But it was hard and bitter work at the best, and as the cold increased, Fred found he could not stand it, and had to remain in the cabin the greater part of the time, coming out only during the middle of the day.

"This cold gets into the marrow of a fellow's bones," he said to Randy. "I don't see how you can put up with it."

"Earl and I were used to pretty tough weather up in the Maine woods, as you know," replied Randy. "I guess an out-and-out city chap would freeze stiff before he had been here a week. The thermometer was down to six below zero this morning."

The cold had cut off their water supply, and every drop for drinking or cooking had to be obtained by melting ice on the stove. To keep them in fuel, all hands spent four days up in the woods cutting timber, which was allowed to dry out for two weeks, and was then hauled over to the edge of the cliff and tumbled down to a spot between their cabin and that of their nearest neighbor, two hundred feet away.

By Foster Portney's advice another trip was made by him and Earl to the Yukon River in search of fish for winter use, for fish could now be kept by simply being frozen in a chunk of ice and laid away. The two found the ice on the Yukon over two feet thick, and had to cut fishing-holes with an axe they had brought along for that purpose. They spent a day on the river, fishing and spearing, and were rewarded with a catch of over fifty pounds. Earl had brought the shot-gun, and to the fish were added a dozen small sea-fowl, which were caught on the wing while flying southward.

"We had better be getting back," observed Foster Portney, early on the following morning. "Unless I am greatly mistaken we shall have a heavy fall of snow by to-night."

As they did not wish to be canght in a storm, they started on the return to the gulch as rapidly as their loads would permit. They were still in the woods when the first flakes began to fall. With the coming of the snow the wind began to rise, shaking the bare limbs above them savagely and causing a lively tumble of dead branches on every side. Not to become storm-bound, they increased their pace, reaching the lower end of the gulch by six o'clock in the evening. They could hardly see before them, so thickly did the flakes come down, and both considered themselves fortunate in having struck familiar ground. By the time the cabin was reached the snow was six inches deep.

"We thought you'd be snowed under!" cried Randy, as he opened the door to let them in. He had been watching anxiously since the snow began to fall. "It's going to be an awful night."

He was right; it was an awful night—more so than any of them had anticipated. After a hot supper they retired to their bunks to sleep, only to be aroused about midnight by the roar of the wind as it tore through the woods and along the gulch with the force of a hurricane. The snow was coming down "in chunks," as Randy put it, and mingled with it were tree branches, small brush, and dried tundra. In one corner of the cabin the wind had found a crack about six inches long and less than a sixteenth of an inch wide, and through this crack the snow had sifted over the entire floor.

"Jerusalem! the roof is coming down! " cried Earl, when they had been up a few minutes, and while his uncle was stuffing a piece of cloth in the crack mentioned. There was a great noise overhead as the hurricane tore away the top joint of the stovepipe. Through the opening poured a lot of snow, which, falling on the hot stove, sent up a cloud of steam. To stop the snow from coming in, Foster Portney climbed up on the top of the table and nailed a bit of a board over the hole.

"We can't have that stovepipe up there, that's certain," he said. "We'll have to stick it out of the side window. It won't look very elegant, but I reckon we're not keeping house on looks up here." And by their united efforts the stove was swung around in front of the little window, and the upper end of what was left of the pipe was twisted around and pointed outside, after one of the small window panes had been taken out. Around the pipe Mr. Portney fitted a square sheet of tin, obtained from an empty tomato can. Then the floor was cleared of snow and the fire started up afresh.

The hurricane, or blizzard, lasted until six o'clock in the morning, and during that time nobody thought of going to sleep again. The cabin shook and rocked, and had it not been for the shelter of the cliff would have gone to pieces. The snow kept piling higher and higher until it threatened to cut off the smokepipe again.

"Perhaps we'll have to swing the stove around to the front," said Foster Portney. " We can let the pipe out near the roof, and build a little hood over it, so that the snow from the cliff can blow right over into the gulch." And later on this was done.

"This will stop work in the gulch," said Randy. "It's too bad! What on earth are we going to do with ourselves from now until next spring?"

"We'll try to keep alive and well, Randy," returned Mr. Portney, seriously. "Remember, from now on comes the tug-of-war, as the old saying goes."

But work was not over, as Randy had surmised. To be sure, when the storm ceased at noon it was found the snow was nearly three feet deep on the level. But a day's labor sufficed to beat down a path to the bank in the gulch, and once again the fires were started and the work of getting the dirt to the sluice boxes resumed. The clearing of the storm had left it stinging cold, and all were glad enough to hustle lively in order to keep warm. They worked with their overcoats on and with their feet encased in several pairs of woollen socks, and even then spent much time around the fire, "thawing out," to use Randy's words.

The work in the bank, however, paid them well. Four days after the fall of snow, Foster Portney struck several rocks to one side of the rise and located another pocket of nuggets. They were all small fellows, the largest about the size of a hickory nut, but the nuggets numbered nearly half a hundred and caused a good deal of excitement.

"It's another fifteen hundred or two thousand dollars to our credit," said Mr. Portney. "And not only that, but this dirt is as rich as that taken from the pocket over yonder. We haven't struck a million, but we are doing remarkably well."

"I wonder how Captain Zoss and Dr. Barwaithe are making out," said Earl. They had not heard from their former partners for nearly a month, when a miner had brought word to the effect that they had just located a claim on a gulch heading into Hunker Creek, the third strike since leaving Mosquito Hollow.

"I imagine they are not doing any better than we are," replied his uncle. "If they were, we should have heard of it. It may pay to strike around, more or less, but I believe in giving a claim a fair trial before abandoning it."

Less than a week later it began to snow again. The sky was heavy, and even at midday it did not brighten up. They had gone down to the gulch directly after breakfast, but now returned to the cabin, to fix up the stovepipe as previously mentioned, and to cut enough small wood to last for several weeks. All were hard at work when they saw two white men and two Indians approaching, the latter driving before them two dog teams attached to a pair of Alaskan sledges, piled high with miners' outfits. The two men were Dr. Barwaithe and Captain Zoss.

"It's a sight good fer sore eyes to see ye ag'in!" exclaimed the captain, as he shook hands with Mr. Portney and the boys. "I couldn't keep away no longer. How are ye all?"

"We are very well," said Foster Portney. "How have you been doing?"

"Only fairly well," answered the doctor. "To tell the truth, I don't think it paid to strike out. We have a little dust, but no more, I imagine, than we should have had had we remained with you."

The pair had come over to see if they could not arrange to remain at the cabin through the winter, fearing that they would find it very lonesome if they went off by themselves. They had brought along all their things, including a stock of provisions, and were willing to pay whatever was fair in addition. As their company would no doubt prove very acceptable during the long, cheerless days to come, they were taken in without question.

"We can put up two more bunks somewhere," said Foster Portney. "And though we may be rather crowded, I reckon we'll manage it." He had taken a great fancy to the doctor, and was pleased to think he would not have to depend altogether on the boys for companionship. As for the boys, Randy declared that the presence of the jovial captain would make every day seem several hours shorter. Fred, whose story had been told in secret, also took to the newcomers, and all together they formed a happy family.

But the height of the winter was now on them, and it was destined to keep its grip for many long weeks and months to come. The storm that had started on the day the doctor and the captain arrived kept up with more or less vigor for a week, and by that time they found themselves snowed in completely. The thermometer kept going down steadily, registering as low as fifteen degrees below zero, and on more than one occasion the pail of water standing up against the side of the stove was frozen solid. To keep thoroughly warm was impossible, even though they wrapped themselves in all the clothing and blankets their outfits afforded.