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CHAPTER II.


THE BOYS REACH A DECISION.


"Uncle Foster is going back to Alaska?" said Randy, slowly.

"Yes; he is going to start almost immediately, too," added his elder brother. "He says the new gold diggings are something immense, and he wants to stake a claim at the earliest possible date."

Randy drew a long breath. To Alaska! What a tremendous trip that would be—five thousand miles at least! And going to such an almost unknown region would be very much like starting for the north pole.

He remembered well that his Uncle Foster had paid a visit to Alaska three years previous, sailing from San Francisco to St. Michael's Island and then taking a Yukon River steamboat to a trading camp known as Fort Cudahy. They had received several letters from him while he was up there, working for the Alaskan Transportation Company part of the time and hunting for gold whenever the opportunity offered. The letters had told of the intense cold and the suffering, and of numerous unsuccessful attempts to strike a paying claim around Fort Cudahy and at another camp, known as Circle City. His uncle had taken up several claims, but they had not panned out very well, and Mr. Portney had finally returned to the United States, to interest himself in a Colorado silver mine.

"Let me see the letter," said Randy, and Earl handed it over. "I don't see how we are to pay our way to Alaska or anywhere else," added the younger boy, ruefully, as he opened the epistle.

"You will see presently," rejoined Earl. "Read it aloud. Uncle writes such a twisted hand, I want to make sure I read aright." And Randy started at once:—


"Creede, Col., April 5.

"My dear Nephews:— I suppose you have been looking for a letter from me all winter, but the fact is I have been away from this vicinity since last December. A man from British Columbia wanted me to buy an interest in a gold mine at a settlement called Dunbar's, and I went with him. The mine proved to be worthless, and I left Dunbar's, and went to Victoria, and stayed there until three weeks ago.

"While I was in Victoria, I ran across two miners whom I had met while at Fort Cudahy in Alaska. They reported that a new gold field had been discovered farther up the Yukon River, at a place known as Klondike Creek. There had been an exodus from Circle City and Fort Cudahy to this new region, and a camp known as Dawson City had been started. They said that there were about a dozen small creeks flowinsr into the Klondike and into the Yukon at this point, and that it was reported and proved that the entire district was rich with gold.

"I was chary of believing the men at first, for I know only too well how many wild-cat reports start up in every mining camp. But a couple of days later I heard another report from Juneau, Alaska, to the effect that several miners had come down from this same territory by way of the lakes and Chilkoot Pass, and had brought with them over thirty-five thousand dollars in nuggets and gold dust, taken out of a place called Hunker's Creek, which runs into the Klondike.

"From these reports, and from others which are floating around, I am convinced that they have at last struck the rich vein of yellow metal which I always believed would be located there, and I am now making preparations to try my luck again in that territory, and if you two boys want to go along and think you can stand the climate, which is something awful for nine months in the year, I'll see you through. I do not know how you are fixed for cash, but I have been lucky in Colorado, and I will pay all expenses, providing you will agree to remain with me for two years, working as I work, for a one-half interest in all our discoveries—that is, a one-quarter interest to each of you and a one-half interest to myself. The expense of a year's trip to Alaska by the route we shall take, over the mountain pass, will be between six and eight hundred dollars each, for we shall have to take nearly all our outfits—clothing, tools, and provisions—along.

"I am now on the point of starting for San Francisco, and shall arrive there probably before this letter reaches you. My address will be the Palace Hotel, and I wish you to telegraph me immediately, at my expense, if you will go or not. Do not attempt to accept my offer unless both of you are perfectly well and strong and willing to stand great hardships, for the sake of what we may have the good luck to find. And if you do go, don't blame me if we are all disappointed, and come home poorer than we went.

"If you accept the offer, I will telegraph you sufficient money to Messrs. Bartwell & Stone, Boston, to pay your fare to San Francisco, and I shall expect to see you at the latter city before the 20th of the month, for I am going to start for the new gold fields, even if I have to go with strangers, as soon as possible. With love to you both, I remain,

"Your affectionate uncle,
"Foster C. Portney."


"Oh, Earl, let's go!" burst from Randy's lips as he finished the long letter. "This is just what I've been waiting for. Let's go to Alaska and make our fortunes!"

"Go to Alaska and be frozen to death, you mean," replied Earl; yet he smiled even as he spoke. "Do you know that the thermometer goes down to forty degrees below zero out there in winter?"

"Well, we're used to roughing it out here in these woods."

"These woods can't hold a candle to Alaska for barrenness. Randy. Think of a winter nine months long and ice all the year round! Uncle said in one of his other letters, that the ground never thawed out more than a few feet, excepting in favored localities."

"Do you mean to say you'll let such a splendid chance slip by?" demanded the younger lad, straightening up and looking his brother full in the face. "And let it slip, too, when we're in such trouble here?"

"No, I didn't say that. Randy. But we ought to consider the matter carefully before we make up our minds. According to the letter we'll have to spend at least two years in the gold fields."

"I'll spend ten if I call make money."

"Uncle said in that other letter that no one seemed to care to stay in the upper portion of Alaska more than two or three years at a time."

"Well, I'm in for the trip, heart and soul. Hurrah for the—what's the name of that creek?—Klondike! Hurrah for the Klondike! I wonder if it's on the map."

Randy rushed over to the little shelf which contained all the school-books the family had ever possessed, and brought forth a large geography, much the worse for wear. There was no separate map of Alaska, but there was one of North America, and this he scanned with interest.

"Here's the Yukon and here's the Porcupine and the Pelly rivers, but I don't see any Klondike," he said seriously. "I wonder where it can be."

"You can't expect to find a little creek on a map that shows up the Yukon River as less than two inches long," said Earl. "Why, the Yukon is between two and three thousand miles long. Circle City must be up there," he continued, pointing to where the Yukon touched the 144° of longitude, "and if that's so, this new gold field can't be so very far off, although in such a great territory a few hundred miles this way or that are hardly counted."

"But you'll go, won't you. Earl?" pleaded Randy, as he restored the geography to the shelf. "We'll never make more than our pork and beans out here in the woods."

Earl picked up a small stick from the fireplace and brought out his pocket-knife. He always had to go to whittling when he wanted to do some hard thinking. "If we accepted Uncle Foster's invitation to come to San Francisco, there would be no turning back," he remarked, after a moment of silence.

"We shouldn't want to turn back as soon as that."

"And we couldn't turn back after we once got into Alaska. There is no such thing as travelling back and forth between the months of October and May. The rivers freeze up, and everything is snow and ice."

"Well, we'd have plenty of provisions—Uncle would be sure to see to that. We've got to vacate here, you must remember, in a day or two."

Again Earl was silent. He had sharpened up one end of the stick, and now he turned to the other. "I wonder where we could telegraph from best," he said at last.

Randy's eyes lit up instantly, and he caught his big brother by the shoulder. "Good for you. Earl; I knew you would say yes!" he cried. "Why, we can telegraph from Spruceville, can't we?"

"We can if they'll trust us for the telegram."

"If they won't, I'll pay for it. I'm not going to let such a chance slide by. The thing of it is," Randy added, sobering down suddenly, "how are we to get to Boston to get the money Uncle intends to send on?"

"We'll have to sell off our things here. They'll bring in something, although not much."

"Good! I never thought of that."

For two hours the boys talked matters over, and in the excitement dinner was entirely forgotten. Then a telegram was prepared which ran as follows:—


"Will sell out and come on as soon as possible."


It was agreed that Earl should send the message from Spruceville, a town four miles beyond Basco. This was a seven miles' tramp, but he did not mind it, having walked the distance many times previously. He procured a bite to eat, and with the letter from his uncle in his pocket he started off. He intended to show the letter to the telegraph operator in case the man should hesitate to send the message with charges to be paid at the other end.

At Basco, Earl met a number of workmen of the district, among whom was Tom Roland, the brother of the lumberman who intended to buy the timber land from Caleb Norcross. Roland was a man whom nobody liked, and Earl passed him without a word, although it was evident from Roland's manner that the latter desired to stop for a talk. With Tom Roland was a fellow named Guardley, a ne'er-do-well, who had been up before the squire on more than one occasion for drinking and stealing. The reader will do well to remember both Tom Roland and Guardley, for they are destined to play a most important part in the chapters which follow.

The middle of the afternoon had passed before Earl struck the outskirts of Spruceville and made his way to the little railroad station where was located the telegraph office. His errand was soon explained to the young man in charge, and he felt in his pocket to bring forth the slip of paper Randy had written out, and his uncle's letter.

To his consternation both were missing. He remembered well where he had placed them, yet to make sure he searched his clothing thoroughly. His search was useless. The message and the letter were gone.