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Full Online Book HomeNonfictionsThe Trail Of The Goldseekers - Chapter 10. Down The Bulkley Valley
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The Trail Of The Goldseekers - Chapter 10. Down The Bulkley Valley Post by :jonny_fox Category :Nonfictions Author :Hamlin Garland Date :May 2012 Read :3105

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The Trail Of The Goldseekers - Chapter 10. Down The Bulkley Valley


As we rose to the top of the divide which lies between the two crossings of the Bulkley, a magnificent view of the coast range again lightened the horizon. In the foreground a lovely lake lay. On the shore of this lake stood a single Indian shack occupied by a half-dozen children and an old woman. They were all wretchedly clothed in graceless rags, and formed a bitter and depressing contrast to the magnificence of nature.

One of the lads could talk a little Chinook mixed with English.

"How far is it to the ford?" I asked of him.

"White man say, mebbe-so six, mebbe-so nine mile."

Knowing the Indian's vague idea of miles, I said:--

"How _long before we reach the ford? Sit-kum sun?" which is to say noon.

He shook his head.

"Klip sun come. Me go-hyak make canoe. Me felly."

By which he meant: "You will arrive at the ford by sunset. I will hurry on and build a raft and ferry you over the stream."

With an axe and a sack of dried fish on his back and a poor old shot-gun in his arm, he led the way down the trail at a slapping pace. He kept with us till dinner-time, however, in order to get some bread and coffee.

Like the _Jicarilla Apaches, these people have discovered the virtues of the inner bark of the black pine. All along the trail were trees from which wayfarers had lunched, leaving a great strip of the white inner wood exposed.

"Man heap dry--this muck-a-muck heap good," said the young fellow, as he handed me a long strip to taste. It was cool and sweet to the tongue, and on a hot day would undoubtedly quench thirst. The boy took it from the tree by means of a chisel-shaped iron after the heavy outer bark has been hewed away by the axe.

All along the trail were tree trunks whereon some loitering young Siwash had delineated a human face by a few deft and powerful strokes of the axe, the sculptural planes of cheeks, brow, and chin being indicated broadly but with truth and decision. Often by some old camp a tree would bear on a planed surface the rude pictographs, so that those coming after could read the number, size, sex, and success at hunting of those who had gone before. There is something Japanese, it seems to me, in this natural taste for carving among all the Northwest people.

All about us was now riotous June. The season was incredibly warm and forward, considering the latitude. Strawberries were in bloom, birds were singing, wild roses appeared in miles and in millions, plum and cherry trees were white with blossoms--in fact, the splendor and radiance of Iowa in June. A beautiful lake occupied our left nearly all day.

As we arrived at the second crossing of the Bulkley about six o'clock, our young Indian met us with a sorrowful face.

"Stick go in chuck. No canoe. Walk stick."

A big cottonwood log had fallen across the stream and lay half-submerged and quivering in the rushing river. Over this log a half-dozen men were passing like ants, wet with sweat, "bucking" their outfits across. The poor Siwash was out of a job and exceedingly sorrowful.

"This is the kind of picnic we didn't expect," said one of the young men, as I rode up to see what progress they were making.

We took our turn at crossing the tree trunk, which was submerged nearly a foot deep with water running at mill-race speed, and resumed the trail, following running water most of the way over a very good path. Once again we had a few hours' positive enjoyment, with no sense of being in a sub-arctic country. We could hardly convince ourselves that we were in latitude 54. The only peculiarity which I never quite forgot was the extreme length of the day. At 10.30 at night it was still light enough to write. No sooner did it get dark on one side of the hut than it began to lighten on the other. The weather was gloriously cool, crisp, and invigorating, and whenever we had sound soil under our feet we were happy.

The country was getting each hour more superbly mountainous. Great snowy peaks rose on all sides. The coast range, lofty, roseate, dim, and far, loomed ever in the west, but on our right a group of other giants assembled, white and stern. A part of the time we threaded our way through fire-devastated forests of fir, and then as suddenly burst out into tracts of wild roses with beautiful open spaces of waving pea-vine on which our horses fed ravenously.

We were forced to throw up our tent at every meal, so intolerable had the mosquitoes become. Here for the first time our horses were severely troubled by myriads of little black flies. They were small, but resembled our common house flies in shape, and were exceedingly venomous. They filled the horses' ears, and their sting produced minute swellings all over the necks and breasts of the poor animals. Had it not been for our pennyroyal and bacon grease, the bay horse would have been eaten raw.

We overtook the trampers again at Chock Lake. They were thin, their legs making sharp creases in their trouser legs--I could see that as I neared them. They were walking desperately, reeling from side to side with weakness. There was no more smiling on their faces. One man, the smaller, had the countenance of a wolf, pinched in round the nose. His bony jaw was thrust forward resolutely. The taller man was limping painfully because of a shoe which had gone to one side. Their packs were light, but their almost incessant change of position gave evidence of pain and great weariness.

I drew near to ask how they were getting along. The tall man, with a look of wistful sadness like that of a hungry dog, said, "Not very well."

"How are you off for grub?"

"Nothing left but some beans and a mere handful of flour."

I invited them to a "square meal" a few miles farther on, and in order to help them forward I took one of their packs on my horse. I inferred that they would take turns at the remaining pack and so keep pace with us, for we were dropping steadily now--down, down through the most beautiful savannas, with fine spring brooks rushing from the mountain's side. Flowers increased; the days grew warmer; it began to feel like summer. The mountains grew ever mightier, looming cloudlike at sunset, bearing glaciers on their shoulders. We were almost completely happy--but alas, the mosquitoes! Their hum silenced the songs of the birds; their feet made the mountains of no avail. The otherwise beautiful land became a restless hell for the unprotected man or beast. It was impossible to eat or sleep without some defence, and our pennyroyal salve was invaluable. It enabled us to travel with some degree of comfort, where others suffered martyrdom.

At noon Burton made up a heavy mess, in expectation of the trampers, who had fallen a little behind. The small man came into view first, for he had abandoned his fellow-traveller. This angered me, and I was minded to cast the little sneak out of camp, but his pinched and hungry face helped me to put up with him. I gave him a smart lecture and said, "I supposed you intended to help the other man, or I wouldn't have relieved you of a pound."

The other toiler turned up soon, limping, and staggering with weakness. When dinner was ready, they came to the call like a couple of starving dogs. The small man had no politeness left. He gorged himself like a wolf. He fairly snapped the food down his throat. The tall man, by great effort, contrived to display some knowledge of better manners. As they ate, I studied them. They were blotched by mosquito bites and tanned to a leather brown. Their thin hands were like claws, their doubled knees seemed about to pierce their trouser legs.

"Yes," said the taller man, "the mosquitoes nearly eat us up. We can only sleep in the middle of the day, or from about two o'clock in the morning till sunrise. We walk late in the evening--till nine or ten--and then sit in the smoke till it gets cold enough to drive away the mosquitoes. Then we try to sleep. But the trouble is, when it is cold enough to keep them off, it's too cold for us to sleep."

"What did you do during the late rains?" I inquired.

"Oh, we kept moving most of the time. At night we camped under a fir tree by the trail and dried off. The mosquitoes didn't bother us so much then. We were wet nearly all the time."

I tried to get at his point of view, his justification for such senseless action, but could only discover a sort of blind belief that something would help him pull through. He had gone to the Caribou mines to find work, and, failing, had pushed on toward Hazleton with a dim hope of working his way to Teslin Lake and to the Klondike. He started with forty pounds of provisions and three or four dollars in his pocket. He was now dead broke, and his provisions almost gone.

Meanwhile, the smaller man made no sign of hearing a word. He ate and ate, till my friend looked at me with a comical wink. We fed him staples--beans, graham bread, and coffee--and he slowly but surely reached the bottom of every dish. He did not fill up, he simply "wiped out" the cooked food. The tall man was not far behind him.

As he talked, I imagined the life they had led. At first the trail was good, and they were able to make twenty miles each day. The weather was dry and warm, and sleeping was not impossible. They camped close beside the trail when they grew tired--I had seen and recognized their camping-places all along. But the rains came on, and they were forced to walk all day through the wet shrubs with the water dripping from their ragged garments. They camped at night beneath the firs (for the ground is always dry under a fir), where a fire is easily built. There they hung over the flame, drying their clothing and their rapidly weakening shoes. The mosquitoes swarmed upon them bloodily in the shelter and warmth of the trees, for they had no netting or tent. Their meals were composed of tea, a few hastily stewed beans, and a poor quality of sticky camp bread. Their sleep was broken and fitful. They were either too hot or too cold, and the mosquitoes gave way only when the frost made slumber difficult. In the morning they awoke to the necessity of putting on their wet shoes, and taking the muddy trail, to travel as long as they could stagger forward.

In addition to all this, they had no maps, and knew nothing of their whereabouts or how far it was to a human habitation. Their only comfort lay in the passing of outfits like mine. From such as I, they "rustled food" and clothing. The small man did not even thank us for the meal; he sat himself down for a smoke and communed with his stomach. The tall man was plainly worsted. His voice had a plaintive droop. His shoe gnawed into his foot, and his pack was visibly heavier than that of his companion.

We were two weeks behind our schedule, and our own flour sack was not much bigger than a sachet-bag, but we gave them some rice and part of our beans and oatmeal, and they moved away.

We were approaching sea-level, following the Bulkley, which flows in a northwesterly direction and enters the great Skeena River at right angles, just below its three forks. Each hour the peaks seemed to assemble and uplift. The days were at their maximum, the sun set shortly after eight, but it was light until nearly eleven. At midday the sun was fairly hot, but the wind swept down from the mountains cool and refreshing. I shall not soon forget those radiant meadows, over which the far mountains blazed in almost intolerable splendor; it was too perfect to endure. Like the light of the sun lingering on the high peaks with most magical beauty, it passed away to be seen no more.

In the midst of these grandeurs we lost one of our horses. Whenever a horse breaks away from his fellows on the trail, it is pretty safe to infer he has "hit the back track." As I went out to round up the horses, "Major Grunt" was nowhere to be found. He had strayed from the bunch and we inferred had started back over the trail. We trailed him till we met one of the trampers, who assured us that no horse had passed him in the night, for he had been camped within six feet of the path.

Up to this time there had been no returning footsteps, and it was easy to follow the horse so long as he kept to the trail, but the tramper's report was positive--no horse had passed him. We turned back and began searching the thickets around the camp.

We toiled all day, not merely because the horse was exceedingly valuable to us, but also for the reason that he had a rope attached to his neck and I was afraid he might become entangled in the fallen timber and so starve to death.

The tall tramper, who had been definitely abandoned by his partner, was a sad spectacle. He was blotched by mosquito bites, thin and weak with hunger, and his clothes hung in tatters. He had just about reached the limit of his courage, and though we were uncertain of our horses, and our food was nearly exhausted, we gave him all the rice we had and some fruit and sent him on his way.

Night came, and still no signs of "Major Grunt." It began to look as though some one had ridden him away and we should be forced to go on without him. This losing of a horse is one of the accidents which make the trail so uncertain. We were exceedingly anxious to get on. There was an oppressive warmth in the air, and flies and mosquitoes were the worst we had ever seen. Altogether this was a dark day on our calendar.

After we had secured ourselves in our tents that night the sound of the savage insects without was like the roaring of a far-off hailstorm. The horses rolled in the dirt, snorted, wheeled madly, stamped, shook their heads, and flung themselves again and again on the ground, giving every evidence of the most terrible suffering. "If this is to continue," I said to my partner, "I shall quit, and either kill all my horses or ship them out of the country. I will not have them eaten alive in this way."

It was impossible to go outside to attend to them. Nothing could be done but sit in gloomy silence and listen to the drumming of their frantic feet on the turf as they battled against their invisible foes. At last, led by old Ladrone, they started off at a hobbling gallop up the trail.

"Well, we are in for it now," I remarked, as the footsteps died away. "They've hit the back trail, and we'll have another day's hard work to catch 'em and bring 'em back. However, there's no use worrying. The mosquitoes would eat us alive if we went out now. We might just as well go to sleep and wait till morning." Sleep was difficult under the circumstances, but we dozed off at last.

As we took their trail in the cool of the next morning, we found the horses had taken the back trail till they reached an open hillside, and had climbed to the very edge of the timber. There they were all in a bunch, with the exception of "Major Grunt," of whom we had no trace.

With a mind filled with distressing pictures of the lost horse entangled in his rope, and lying flat on his side hidden among the fallen tree trunks, there to struggle and starve, I reluctantly gave orders for a start, with intent to send an Indian back to search for him.

After two hours' smart travel we came suddenly upon the little Indian village of Morricetown, which is built beside a narrow canyon through which the Bulkley rushes with tremendous speed. Here high on the level grassy bank we camped, quite secure from mosquitoes, and surrounded by the curious natives, who showed us where to find wood and water, and brought us the most beautiful spring salmon, and potatoes so tender and fine that the skin could be rubbed from them with the thumb. They were exactly like new potatoes in the States. Out of this, it may be well understood, we had a most satisfying dinner. Summer was in full tide. Pieplant was two feet high, and strawberries were almost ripe.

Calling the men of the village around me, I explained in Pigeon-English and worse Chinook that I had lost a horse, and that I would give five dollars to the man who would bring him to me. They all listened attentively, filled with joy at a chance to earn so much money. At last the chief man of the village, a very good-looking fellow of twenty-five or thirty, said to me: "All light, me go, me fetch 'um. You stop here. Mebbe-so, klip-sun, I come bling horse."

His confidence relieved us of anxiety, and we had a very pleasant day of it, digesting our bountiful meal of salmon and potatoes, and mending up our clothing. We were now pretty ragged and very brown, but in excellent health.

Late in the afternoon a gang of road-cutters (who had been sent out by the towns interested in the route) came into town from Hazleton, and I had a talk with the boss, a very decent fellow, who gave a grim report of the trail beyond. He said: "Nobody knows anything about that trail. Jim Deacon, the head-man of our party when we left Hazleton, was only about seventy miles out, and cutting fallen timber like a man chopping cord wood, and sending back for more help. We are now going back to bridge and corduroy the places we had no time to fix as we came."

Morricetown was a superb spot, and Burton was much inclined to stay right there and prospect the near-by mountains. So far as a mere casual observer could determine, this country offers every inducement to prospectors. It is possible to grow potatoes, hay, and oats, together with various small fruits, in this valley, and if gold should ever be discovered in the rushing mountain streams, it would be easy to sustain a camp and feed it well.

Long before sunset an Indian came up to us and smilingly said, "You hoss--come." And a few minutes later the young ty-ee came riding into town leading "Major Grunt," well as ever, but a little sullen. He had taken the back trail till he came to a narrow and insecure bridge. There he had turned up the stream, going deeper and deeper into the "stick," as the Siwash called the forest. I paid the reward gladly, and Major took his place among the other horses with no sign of joy.



Do you fear the force of the wind,
The slash of the rain?
Go face them and fight them,
Be savage again.
Go hungry and cold like the wolf,
Go wade like the crane.
The palms of your hands will thicken,
The skin of your cheek will tan,
You'll grow ragged and weary and swarthy,
But you'll walk like a man!

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