To Alaska for Gold/Chapter 29
WAITING AND WATCHING FOR SPRING.
"Perhaps it isn't cold! I never felt so frozen up in my life!"
It was Randy who uttered the words, as he danced around the floor of the living-room, almost on top of the stove. The fire had burned low during the night, and he had just shoved in some fresh wood and opened the draughts. Going to the little window of the sleeping-apartment, he looked through the single pane of glass at the thermometer, which hung on the casement outside. The mercury registered twenty-two degrees below zero.
"Twenty-two degrees below, and this is Christmas morning!" he went on, with another shiver. "The best thing Santa Claus can bring us is warmer weather."
"Merry Christmas!" cried Fred, tumbling out of his bunk, and his cry awoke the others, and the greeting went the whole round. The fire was now blazing with a vigor which threatened to crack the stove, yet as they talked they could see each other's breath. Every one was stamping around to get his blood in circulation.
"I'll give ye some hot coffee and Christmas flapjacks!" said the captain; and soon a smell which was most appetizing was floating through the air, and they sat down at the table, which had been placed as close to the fire as possible. Indeed, "hugging the stove" was a common trick all day long, and Fred often grumbled because he could not take the stove to bed with him. The boys were waking up to the fact that an Alaskan winter was "two winters in one," as Earl said, when compared with those experienced at home.
It had been snowing again; indeed, it snowed about half the time now, and even in the middle of the day it was so dark they could scarcely see, excepting right in front of the windows. Some time previous several Indians had appeared with fish oil and some dried fat fish to sell, and they had purchased a quantity of both for lighting purposes. The oil was used in a lamp made of a round tin having a home-made wick hanging over the side. The fat fish, dried very hard, were slit in strips and set up, to be lighted and burnt as tallow candles. Many of the Indians and the Esquimaux have no lights but these dried-fish candles. The smell from them is far from pleasant, but they are certainly better than nothing.
As it was a holiday, the boys felt they must do something. But what to do was the question, until Fred suggested they try their hand at making some candy. They were allowed just a pound of sugar by the men, and worked themselves half sick over the wood fire until noon, when the candy was declared done. It was a sort of taffy; and although it would not have added to the reputation of a skilled confectioner, all hands partook of their share of it, and declared it excellent.
Just before being snowed in Mr. Portney had become the possessor of two newspapers and a magazine, and much of the time was spent by one or another over these. The magazine was rather a heavy one, yet the boys read it through from cover to cover, including all the advertisements. It contained among other stories one which was continued, and to pass away the time they tried to invent a conclusion. This self-imposed task amused the doctor also, and he took a hand and finished the tale in a manner which took three evenings to tell.
And so New Year's Day came and went, and still they found themselves housed up with the thermometer continually at fifteen to twenty degrees below. Once it went down to twenty-six below, and everything fairly cracked with the cold. To keep from being frozen, one and another stood guard during the night, that the fire might not go down. During that time they received but scant news from their neighbors, although the cabins along the under side of the cliff were less than seventy yards apart. Nobody cared to venture out, and even opening the door was something to be considered, although the doctor insisted on having a little fresh air.
"Providence help the poor chaps who are not well provided for this winter," said Mr. Portney, one day. "I shouldn't wonder if some of them are found dead in the spring."
"To be sure," answered the captain. "I looked ter somethin' putty bad myself, but I didn't expect nuthin' like this. Why, we might jest as well be a-sittin' on the top o' the North Pole. Hain't been a blessed streak o' sunshine fer eight days, an' every time it snows the stuff piles up a foot or so more! It must be nigh on to thirty feet deep in yonder gulch."
"We'll have to economize with our store before long," put in the doctor. "Flour is running pretty low. Captain, you'll have to give us less flap-jacks—they're too toothsome."
"Yes, we'll have to come down to plain bread," said Foster Portney. "And maybe eat it stale too," he added.
Economizing began that day, after Mr. Portney had taken an account of the provisions still left to them. Whatever they had must be made to do for three months yet, and three months meant ninety days, a goodly number for which to provide.
Slowly the days wore on, every one so much like the others that it seemed impossible to tell them apart. Sunday was the one day they observed through it all. On the morning of that the doctor invariably read a chapter out of the Bible he carried, and one or another of the rest offered prayer. "It's right an' proper," said the captain, speaking of this. "We don't want ter live like no heathens, even if we are cast away in an ocean o' snow!"
February proved the worst month of all. It snowed nearly the whole time, and it was so dark that they kept the lights lit as long as they dared to consume the fish oil and the dried fish. During that time they saw or heard nothing of their neighbors, who might have died of starvation without their being any the wiser. The snow against the door was five feet high and water was obtained by shovelling this into the pot instead of ice and melting it.
"Well, it's a dog's life and that's the truth," said Earl one day, in the middle of March. "It's worth all the gold we've found—that's my opinion." It was the first time Earl had grumbled since winter set in, but as he had not had what he called a square meal for a month he can well be pardoned for the speech.
"If I thought I could get there and back, I would try for some extra provisions from Dawson," said Foster Portney; but none of the others would hear of his attempting such a trip, feeling certain he would lose his way and perish.
"We'll make out with what we have," said the doctor. "Divide the rations so they'll hold out until the middle of April. I fancy by that time this winter siege will about end." His advice was followed out, and they waited with all the patience possible for the coming of spring.
The fish and game had long since come to an end, and they were now living on plain bread, beans, and bacon or pork, and half a can of fresh vegetables per day with an occasional taste of stewed dried apples or apricots as a side dish. They were all tired of the beans, especially Fred and the doctor, who had been used to good living all their lives.
"They're too much for me," said Fred, one day, as he pushed his small plateful back. "I'd rather eat a crust of bread and drink snow water." And the beans remained untouched for two days, when he was forced, out of sheer hunger, to go at them again.
They had also reached the last half pound of coffee, and by a general vote this was reserved for dinner each Sunday. As the amount on hand decreased they made the beverage weaker and weaker, until the doctor laughingly declared that the snow flavored the water more than the coffee did. The lack of coffee hit the captain more than the others, for he loved his cupful, strong, black, and without sugar.
It was on the last day of March that they heard a noise outside and then came a faint hammering on their door. All leaped up and ran to open the barrier. When it had been forced back a distance of a foot, they beheld two miners there, so weak they could scarcely stand, much less speak. "Sumthin' to eat!" whispered one of them hoarsely, and the other echoed the word "Eat!" as being all he could say.
The two were taken into the cabin and warmed up, while Earl prepared a thin vegetable soup for them, that being best for their stomachs, according to the doctor. They could hardly swallow at first, and it was not until the following morning that they were strong enough to sit up and tell their stories. They had been wintering back of the woods, but starvation had driven them forth in an attempt to reach Dawson City for supplies. Their strength had failed them, they had lost their way, and here they were.
"Take care of us, and we'll pay you well," said one of the miners. "We've got over a thousand dollars in gold dust with us and ten thousand in dust and nuggets hidden up at the camp."
"I'm afraid your money won't count up here," replied Foster Portney, sadly. "We're almost as badly off ourselves. Yet I am willing to share what I have." A vote was taken, and the miners remained; and that made two more mouths to feed out of their scanty store.
The first week in April saw them reduced to next to nothing. The flour was gone, so was the bacon and the canned goods, and it was pork and beans and stewed dried apples twice a day and nothing more. Every one looked haggard, and all felt that something must happen soon. Would spring ever come?
"Pork and beans enough to last about three days yet," said Foster Portney, as he surveyed the scanty store, with the others standing around. "Three days, and after that—" He did not finish, and a silence fell on the crowd. Were they to suffer the pangs of actual starvation, after all?