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CHAPTER XX.


THE GOLD FIELDS AT LAST.


On the following day the wind died down utterly, and no progress could be made in the Wild Goose excepting by the use of oars, and this was slow and laborious work. They took turns at rowing, two at a turn, with the others taking it easy on the blankets, for the river was now broad and deep and as smooth as a millpond.

On the second day they seemed to leave the rocks behind, and emerged into a slightly hilly country. Here the banks of the stream were overgrown with bushes and flowers, the latter just starting to push forth their buds in countless profusion of variety and color. The transformation was almost magical and more than one spoke of it.

"That's the way of things in Alaska," said Foster Portney. "There are no spring and autumn; just winter and summer, and that's all. The warm weather which is now coming on will last until September, and then winter will come almost before you know it."

Earl had noticed the increase in heat since leaving the lakes, and now he perspired freely while pulling at the long oar. Randy sat in the bow taking in the sights. A flock of wild geese came sweeping toward them, and he asked for permission to take a shot with the gun. His aim was a good one, and two of the creatures fell where they were readily picked up.

"We'll have stuffed goose to-night," said the captain, with a grin. "It's a pity we ain't got sage an' onions ter stuff it with."

"Perhaps I can find something to take the place of sage," said the doctor. "This variety of bushes and vines ought to produce some similar herb."

During the past two days they had noted a number of islands in the river, and that night they made a landing on one of these, in preference to tying up on shore. Mosquitoes were more numerous than ever, but a smudge built by Foster Portney soon drove the most of the insects off.

The island was several acres in extent, and while the captain busied himself in roasting a goose and frying some potatoes he had "traded in" from Wodley for a bit of bacon, Randy and Earl took a tramp around, to stretch their legs and prospect on the sly. One carried a pick and a shovel and the other a gold-washing pan, and coming to a hollow where they could work unobserved, they set about getting out some dirt from under a series of rocks. The pan was soon full, and then Earl started to wash by pouring water on top and giving it the rotary motion he had heard his uncle mention.

The labor was harder than either of them had imagined, and four panfuls of dirt were washed out, leaving nothing but smooth stones behind. They were about to continue the process, when they heard their uncle calling them, and a moment later Foster Portney appeared. He started to laugh, but quickly checked himself.

"Digging for gold, eh?" he said. "Well I don't think you'll find any here. The formation of the ground isn't right. If there is any precious metal around at all, it's at the bottom of yonder river. Might as well give it up." And somewhat disgusted the boys returned to camp. It was the only time they tried prospecting until the regular gold fields were reached.

Two days later found them at the Rink and Five Finger rapids. Owing to the melting of the snow and ice under the increasing heat of the sun, the river was very high now, and, consequently, both spots were passed with comparative ease, the dangerous rocks being covered to a depth of a yard or more. In consequence of this increase of water, the river had overflowed its bank for miles, forming great lakes and marshes everywhere, and at times it was almost impossible for them to keep to the channel. Once they did make a false turn, only to find themselves, half an hour later, in a "blind pocket," as Dr. Barwaithe put it.

The rapids and the Tachun River passed, it was almost a straight sail northwest to the ruins of old Fort Selkirk. But little could be seen of the former fort, the Indians having overturned the very foundations in their search for trinkets and articles of value. They encamped at the spot over-night and were joined on the following morning by two other parties who had crossed Chilkoot Pass two days after themselves.

Of these parties Earl asked for news of Tom Roland and Jasper Guardley, and was informed that the men had joined a crowd of Irishmen from Portland, who were coming through on a large raft. "They're a tough crowd, too—all of 'em," said the speaker. "If they don't get into trouble before they leave the gold diggings, it will be mighty queer."

From old Fort Selkirk to Dawson City is a distance of one hundred and sixty miles, through a country so varied that it is next to impossible to describe it. At times the voyagers found themselves sailing calmly along on a broad expanse of water dotted here and there with wooded islands, rich in new foliage and evergreen trees, and again the stream would narrow, with high and rocky hills on either side. Here the water would flow swiftly over and around jagged rocks, and the utmost care would have to be exercised in avoiding a smash-up. Once they did receive a severe shaking-up and had to run for a low island with all possible speed, to avoid becoming waterlogged. This happened in the forenoon, and it took the balance of the day to make the Wild Goose as seaworthy as before.

A week and more had slipped by since leaving the Rink Rapids, and now all were on the watch for the first sight of the new gold fields. Every one was in a state of suppressed excitement. They had met half a dozen miners sailing back and forth on the river and from these had learned that everything was "booming," and that strikes were panning out big. The eyes of both Randy and Earl glistened when they heard these stories, and the hardships endured since leaving Dyea were forgotten.

"Hurrah! there's a miner's tent!" suddenly shouted Randy, late one afternoon. "We've struck the diggings at last!"

"There are half a dozen tents and a board cabin!" added Earl, pointing still further on. "I guess you're right. Randy. I wonder if that is the Klondike River over yonder. It looks mighty small."

"That's only a creek," said Foster Portney. "We'll land and see how far we are from Dawson."

The Wild Goose was easily beached, and they lost no time in hunting up the miners to whom the tents and the cabin belonged. They were a party of Frenchmen from Canada and could speak but little English. Dr. Barwaithe spoke to them in their native tongue and soon learned that the place was Baker's Creek and that Dawson City was about six miles further on. The Frenchmen were very conservative, but admitted that they were doing very well at placer-mining, taking out an average of thirty dollars a day per man.

"Thirty dollars a day!" cried Randy. "A fellow can get rich quick enough at that rate."

"Hardly—with such a short season," answered his uncle. "Yet thirty dollars isn't bad by any means."

"I'm up yere to strike a fortune," put in the captain. "No measly little thirty dollars a day fer me!"

Both Randy and Earl wished to remain behind to see the Frenchmen wash out the gold dust, but the others were impatient to go on, and they were soon on the way once more.

"If the claims are good around here, it won't be long before they are taken up," said Foster Portney. "For, as you can see, men are pouring in over the mountains every day, not to say anything of those who make the long trip by way of the ocean and up the Yukon."

"Well, I'm just crazy to get to work," declared Randy. "Just think of the gold lying around ready to be picked up!"

His uncle smiled. Poor Randy! Little did he dream of the many backaches and privations in store for him.

To the left of the river there now arose a long chain of hills and mountains, sloping gradually to the water's edge; on the right were smaller hills and great marshes, fairly choked with bushes and wild growths of vines and flowers. The tundra was everywhere, and over all circled flocks and flocks of wild birds, a few mosquitoes, and something they had not yet seen—horseflies. The horseflies were black and green in color, and a bite from one of them made Captain Zoss utter a mighty yell of pain. "It was like the stab of a dagger!" he declared afterwards, and so angry did the bite become, and so painful, that the doctor was called upon to treat it with a soothing lotion.

It was after seven o'clock, but still daylight, when Dr. Barwaithe raised his hand for the others to become silent. "Listen!" he said. "I think I heard a steamboat whistle. Ah! I was right. A boat is on the river!"

A few minutes passed, and they heard the whistle again. Then Earl pointed ahead excitedly. "There's the boat, and she is tied up to the river bank. There are half a dozen buildings and fifty tents or more. I'll wager it's Dawson!"

With hearts which beat quickly they sailed forward, using the oars to make the Wild Goose move the faster. Another turn of the stream and the mining town could be seen quite plainly. Ten minutes later they ran up just behind the steamboat and tied fast. The long trip was at an end. The new diggings, with all their golden hopes, lay before them.