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Full Online Book HomeNonfictionsThe Trail Of The Goldseekers - Chapter 20. Great News At Wrangell
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The Trail Of The Goldseekers - Chapter 20. Great News At Wrangell Post by :47228 Category :Nonfictions Author :Hamlin Garland Date :May 2012 Read :1804

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The Trail Of The Goldseekers - Chapter 20. Great News At Wrangell


Boat after boat had come up, stopped for a night, and dropped down the river again, carrying from ten to twenty of the goldseekers who had determined to quit or to try some other way in; and at last the time had come for me to say good-by to Burton and all those who had determined to keep on to Teslin Lake. I had helped them buy and sack and weigh their supplies, and they were ready to line up once more.

As I led Ladrone down toward the boat, he called again for his fellows, but only strangers made reply. After stowing him safely away and giving him feed, I returned to the deck in order to wave my hat to Burton.

In accordance with his peculiar, undemonstrative temperament, he stood for a few moments in silence, with his hands folded behind his back, then, with a final wave of the hand, turned on his heel and returned to his work.

Farewells and advice more or less jocular rang across the rail of the boat between some ten or fifteen of us who had hit the new trail and those on shore.

"Good-by, boys; see you at Dawson."

"We'll beat you in yet," called Bill. "Don't over-work."

"Let us know if you strike it!" shouted Frank.

"All right; you do the same," I replied.

As the boat swung out into the stream, and the little group on the bank faded swiftly away, I confess to a little dimness of the eyes. I thought of the hardships toward which my uncomplaining partner was headed, and it seemed to me Nature was conspiring to crush him.

The trip down the river was exceedingly interesting. The stream grew narrower as we approached the coast range, and became at last very dangerous for a heavy boat such as the _Strathcona was. We were forced to lay by at last, some fifty miles down, on account of the terrific wind which roared in through the gap, making the steering of the big boat through the canyon very difficult.

At the point where we lay for the night a small creek came in. Steel-headed salmon were running, and the creek was literally lined with bear tracks of great size, as far up as we penetrated. These bears are said to be a sort of brown fishing bear of enormous bulk, as large as polar bears, and when the salmon are spawning in the upper waters of the coast rivers, they become so fat they can hardly move. Certainly I have never been in a country where bear signs were so plentiful. The wood was an almost impassable tangle of vines and undergrowth, and the thought of really finding a bear was appalling.

The Stikeen breaks directly through the coast range at right angles, like a battering-ram. Immense glaciers were on either side. One tremendous river of ice came down on our right, presenting a face wall apparently hundreds of feet in height and some miles in width. I should have enjoyed exploring this glacier, which is said to be one of the greatest on the coast.

The next day our captain, a bold and reckless man, carried us through to Wrangell by _walking his boat over the sand bars on its paddle-wheel. I was exceedingly nervous, because if for any reason we had become stuck in mid river, it would have been impossible to feed Ladrone or to take him ashore except by means of another steamer. However, all things worked together to bring us safely through, and in the afternoon of the second day we entered an utterly different world--the warm, wet coast country. The air was moist, the grasses and tall ferns were luxuriant, and the forest trees immense. Out into a sun-bright bay we swept with a feeling of being in safe waters once more, and rounded-to about sunset at a point on the island just above a frowzy little town. This was Wrangell Island and the town was Fort Wrangell, one of the oldest stations on the coast.

I had placed my horse under bond intending to send him through to Vancouver to be taken care of by the Hudson Bay Company. He was still a Canadian horse and so must remain upon the wharf over night. As he was very restless and uneasy, I camped down beside him on the planks.

I lay for a long time listening to the waters flowing under me and looking at the gray-blue sky, across which stars shot like distant rockets dying out in the deeps of the heavens in silence. An odious smell rose from the bay as the tide went out, a seal bawled in the distance, fishes flopped about in the pools beneath me, and a man playing a violin somewhere in the village added a melancholy note. I could hear the boys crying, "All about the war," and Ladrone continued restless and eager. Several times in the night, when he woke me with his trampling, I called to him, and hearing my voice he became quiet.

I took breakfast at a twenty-five cent "joint," where I washed out of a tin basin in an ill-smelling area. After breakfast I grappled with the customs man and secured the papers which made Ladrone an American horse, free to eat grass wherever it could be found under the stars and stripes. I started immediately to lead him to pasture, and this was an interesting and memorable experience.

There are no streets, that is to say no roads, in Wrangell. There are no carriages and no horses, not even donkeys. Therefore it was necessary for Ladrone to walk the perilous wooden sidewalks after me. This he did with all the dignity of a county judge, and at last we came upon grass, knee deep, rich and juicy.

Our passage through the street created a great sensation. Little children ran to the gates to look upon us. "There goes a horsie," they shouted. An old man stopped me on the street and asked me where I was taking "T'old 'orse." I told him I had already ridden him over a thousand miles and now he was travelling with me back to God's country. He looked at me in amazement, and walked off tapping his forehead as a sign that I must certainly "have wheels."

As I watched Ladrone at his feed an old Indian woman came along and smiled with amiable interest. At last she said, pointing to the other side of the village, "Over there muck-a-muck, hy-u muck-a-muck." She wished to see the horse eating the best grass there was to be had on the island.

A little later three or four native children came down the hill and were so amazed and so alarmed at the sight of this great beast feeding beside the walk that they burst into loud outcry and ran desperately away. They were not accustomed to horses. To them he was quite as savage in appearance as a polar bear.

In a short time everybody in the town knew of the old gray horse and his owner. I furnished a splendid topic for humorous conversation during the dull hours of the day.

Here again I came upon other gaunt and rusty-coated men from the Long Trail. They could be recognized at a glance by reason of their sombre faces and their undecided action. They could scarcely bring themselves to such ignominious return from a fruitless trip on which they had started with so much elation, and yet they hesitated about attempting any further adventure to the north, mainly because their horses had sold for so little and their expenses had been so great. Many of them were nearly broken. In the days that followed they discussed the matter in subdued voices, sitting in the sun on the great wharf, sombrely looking out upon the bay.

On the third day a steamer came in from the north, buzzing with the news of another great strike not far from Skagway. Juneau, Dyea, as well as Skagway itself, were said to be almost deserted. Men were leaving the White Pass Railway in hundreds, and a number of the hands on the steamer herself had deserted under the excitement. Mingling with the passengers we eagerly extracted every drop of information possible. No one knew much about it, but they said all they knew and a good part of what they had heard, and when the boat swung round and disappeared in the moonlight, she left the goldseekers exultant and tremulous on the wharf.

They were now aflame with desire to take part in this new stampede, which seemed to be within their slender means, and I, being one of them and eager to see such a "stampede," took a final session with the customs collector, and prepared to board the next boat.

I arranged with Duncan McKinnon to have my old horse taken care of in his lot. I dug wells for him so that he should not lack for water, and treated him to a dish of salt, and just at sunset said good-by to him with another twinge of sadness and turned toward the wharf. He looked very lonely and sad standing there with drooping head in the midst of the stumps of his pasture lot. However, there was plenty of feed and half a dozen men volunteered to keep an eye on him.

"Don't worry, mon," said Donald McLane. "He'll be gettin' fat and strong on the juicy grass, whilst you're a-heavin' out the gold-dust."

There were about ten of us who lined up to the purser's window of the little steamer which came along that night and purchased second-class passage. The boat was very properly named the _Utopia_, and was so crowded with other goldseekers from down the coast, that we of the Long Trail were forced to put our beds on the floor of the little saloon in the stern of the boat which was called the "social room." We were all second-class, and we all lay down in rows on the carpet, covering every foot of space. Each man rolled up in his own blankets, and I was the object of considerable remark by reason of my mattress, which gave me as good a bed as the vessel afforded.

There was a great deal of noise on the boat, and its passengers, both men and women, were not of the highest type. There were several stowaways, and some of the women were not very nice as to their actions, and, rightly or wrongly, were treated with scant respect by the men, who were loud and vulgar for the most part. Sleep was difficult in the turmoil.

Though second-class passengers, strange to say, we came first at table and were very well fed. The boat ran entirely inside a long row of islands, and the water was smooth as a river. The mountains grew each moment more splendid as we neared Skagway, and the ride was most enjoyable. Whales and sharks interested us on the way. The women came to light next day, and on the whole were much better than I had inferred from the two or three who were the source of disturbance the night before. The men were not of much interest; they seemed petty and without character for the most part.

At Juneau we came into a still more mountainous country, and for the rest of the way the scenery was magnificent. Vast rivers of ice came curving down absolutely out of the clouds which hid the summits of the mountains--came curving in splendid lines down to the very water's edge. The sea was chill and gray, and as we entered the mouth of Lynn Canal a raw swift wind swept by, making us shiver with cold. The grim bronze-green mountains' sides formed a most impressive but forbidding scene.

It was nine o'clock the next morning as we swung to and unloaded ourselves upon one of the long wharves which run out from the town of Skagway toward the deep water. We found the town exceedingly quiet. Half the men had gone to the new strike. Stores were being tended by women, some small shops were closed entirely, and nearly every business firm had sent representatives into the new gold fields, which we now found to be on Atlin Lake.

It was difficult to believe that this wharf a few months before had been the scene of a bloody tragedy which involved the shooting of "Soapy Smith," the renowned robber and desperado. On the contrary, it seemed quite like any other town of its size in the States. The air was warm and delightful in midday, but toward night the piercing wind swept down from the high mountains, making an overcoat necessary.

A few men had returned from this new district, and were full of enthusiasm concerning the prospects. Their reports increased the almost universal desire to have a part in the stampede. The Iowa boys from the Long Trail wasted no time, but set about their own plans for getting in. They expected to reach the creek by sheer force and awkwardness.

They had determined to try the "cut-off," which left the wagon road and took off up the east fork of the Skagway River. Nearly three hundred people had already set out on this trail, and the boys felt sure of "making it all right--all right," though it led over a great glacier and into an unmapped region of swift streams. "After the Telegraph Trail," said Doc, "we're not easily scared."

It seemed to me a desperate chance, and I was not ready to enter upon such a trip with only such grub and clothing as could be carried upon my back; but it was the last throw of the dice for these young fellows. They had very little money left, and could not afford to hire pack trains; but by making a swift dash into the country, each hoped to get a claim. How they expected to hold it or use it after they got it, they were unable to say; but as they were out for gold, and here was a chance (even though it were but the slightest chance in the world) to secure a location, they accepted it with the sublime audacity of youth and ignorance. They saddled themselves with their packs, and with a cheery wave of the hand said "Good-by and good luck" and marched away in single file.

Just a week later I went round to see if any news of them had returned to their bunk house. I found their names on the register. They had failed. One of them set forth their condition of purse and mind by writing: "Dave Walters, Boone, Iowa. Busted and going home."



I saw these dreamers of dreams go by,
I trod in their footsteps a space;
Each marched with his eyes on the sky,
Each passed with a light on his face.

They came from the hopeless and sad,
They faced the future and gold;
Some the tooth of want's wolf had made mad,
And some at the forge had grown old.

Behind them these serfs of the tool
The rags of their service had flung;
No longer of fortune the fool,
This word from each bearded lip rung:

"Once more I'm a man, I am free!
No man is my master, I say;
To-morrow I fail, it may be--
No matter, I'm freeman to-day."

They go to a toil that is sure,
To despair and hunger and cold;
Their sickness no warning can cure,
They are mad with a longing for gold.

The light will fade from each eye,
The smile from each face;
They will curse the impassible sky,
And the earth when the snow torrents race.

Some will sink by the way and be laid
In the frost of the desolate earth;
And some will return to a maid,
Empty of hand as at birth.

_But this out of all will remain,_
_They have lived and have tossed;_
_So much in the game will be gain,_
_Though the gold of the dice has been lost.

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