Gold Seekers of '49 - Edwin Sabin

A Friend in Need

The Robert Burns steadily churned her way down the Mississippi, yellow and swollen with the spring freshets. She stopped at towns and other landings—some of these being plantation landings—to discharge or take on passengers and freight. These stops would have been the more interesting, to Charley, were he not in a hurry. He wanted to be sure and catch the Georgia, for the Isthmus. Supposing the Robert Burns were late into New Orleans; then they might miss the Georgia. Of course, there were other boats—the Falcon and the Isthmus and the Quaker City; but with such crowds setting out for the gold fields, it behooved a fellow to get there as soon as he possibly could.

More "Forty-niners" boarded the Robert Burns. One in particular took Charley's eye. He came out in a skiff, from a small wood landing, where some steamers, but not the Robert Burns, stopped to load up with fuel. When the Robert Burns whistled and paused, floating idly, and he had clambered in, he proved to be a very tall, gaunt, black-whiskered individual, with a long, muzzle-loading squirrel rifle on his arm. A darky tossed a blanket roll up after him, and rowed away for the shore.

The man looked like a backwoodsman—and again he looked like a Californian, too, for his clothes were an old blue flannel shirt (with a rolling collar having white stars in the corners), patched buckskin trousers and heavy boots of the regulation style. Charley chanced to be crossing the salon or main cabin when the man was paying for his passage, and there witnessed something exciting that made him dart out and find his father.

"Dad!" hoarsely whispered Charley. "That was a gold miner who came aboard in a skiff! He was paying his fare with gold dust."

"Was he? How do you know?"

"I saw him at the desk, but the clerk wouldn't take any dust, so he had to pay with money. He has a buckskin sack, just like ours. Wish I could talk with him."

"Maybe he'll talk with you, if you give him the chance. You can try and see. But don't ask him any foolish questions, or seem inquisitive."

Presently the tall man (he was taller even than Mr. Adams) emerged from the cabin, to stand by the rail, leaning on his rifle and gazing at the shore line. A picturesque figure he made, with his starred shirt-collar rolled back, and his leathery trousers wrinkled down over his boot-tops.

Charley sidled around him, expectantly; and the man noticed him.

"You look as if you were going out, too," addressed the man, a twinkle under his bushy brows.

"Yes, sir," answered Charley. "To California."

"Anybody with you?"

"My father." And Charley proudly nodded toward another tall form. "Were you ever there?" he added, hesitantly.

"I should rather think so. Five years ago, and four years ago; and now I'm making another trip by a new route. The other times I crossed by the land trail."

"Oh, you must have been with Fremont!" exclaimed Charley.

The whiskered man nodded.

"I was. I was with Carson and Fremont in Forty-three—Forty-four, and again in Forty-five—Forty-six."

"I know about those travels," cried Charley. "I'm reading Colonel Fremont's reports now. I'm just finishing his last one. I guess they're about the best description of California there is. Did you fight in the war?"

The man smiled.

"See my shirt?" he queried. "All we Fremont men wore these navy shirts—some of us clear through the campaign. The sloop of war Portsmouth sent us a lot of ship's supplies, when we marched down from the mountains to Sutter's Fort, just before the uprising of the Bear War in June, Forty-six. I saved my shirt, and now I only wear it occasionally. I'm sorter proud of this shirt."

"I should think you would be," agreed Charley. "Did you mine in California?"

"Yes, sir. I started in to settle there, after the war, till the gold craze broke out. Ever see any dust?"

"Some," admitted Charley.

"There's not much in this sack now," continued the Fremont man, showing it. "But I've filled it many a time."

"I've got a sack, too," said Charley, exhibiting it.

"You've been out there?"

"No, sir. I got this in St. Louis."

"Let's see." And the man fingered it. "It's old-timer—been used plenty. Some dust sticking to it, too. Huh."

"Is there lots of gold out there?" asked Charley.

"Gold?" repeated the man; and laughed. "I found fifteen hundred dollars in two days, first thing; then I didn't find any for a month. But I cleaned up $10,000, and I'm going back after more. It's all luck, now; but after the surface has been scraped off, then it will be skill. Does your father know anything about mining?"

"No, sir. He's a soldier. He was with General Scott."

"That won't cut much figure," said the man, quickly. "Soldiers and sailors and lawyers and doctors and farmers and trappers and even Indians are all grubbing together—and none of us knows a blamed thing except that gold is soft and yellow and will pass for currency—sixteen dollars an ounce. But good luck to you. Going across the Isthmus, I reckon?"

"Yes, sir."

"That's the easier way. Well, if I see you out there and can help you along any way, you can count on me. But it's a country where every tub stands on its own bottom, and no man's any better than any other man."

So saying, he threw his rifle into the hollow of his arm and paced away, into the cabin. Charley gazed after him, and reflected that although they might have an enemy with them, they also had made a friend.

"If he was with Carson and Fremont, he's all right," declared Mr. Adams, when Charley related the conversation. "But we'll be beholden to nobody, as long as we can help ourselves. We two bunkies can paddle our own canoe, can't we?"

The Robert Burns continued on, down to New Orleans. The long-nosed man kept to the cabin, mainly, where a number of rough passengers spent their time drinking and gambling. The Fremont man was about the quietest of all the passengers, mingling little, talking little. He exchanged a few civil words with Mr. Adams, and kindly greeted Charley, when they were near one another. That was all.

Charley thought rather the more of him, that he was not the blustering, boasting kind, even though he had blazed the long trail across to California, with Fremont and Carson. He evidently was a man of deeds, not words.

New Orleans was reached in the afternoon—and a fine big city it looked to be, as the Robert Burns whistled hoarsely and swung for the levee. However, the Forty-niners aboard her had not much thought for the looks of the city; their minds were more upon whether the Georgia had arrived, and how soon they could get aboard her, for the Isthmus and California gold fields.

In the excitement of bustling ashore Charley forgot all about the long-nosed man, who disappeared with the other scattering passengers.

"Where's the dock of the Isthmus steamers?" queried Mr. Adams, of a lounger, as he and Charley landed, the roll of bedding on Mr. Adams's shoulder.

"Eet is still down the river, m'sieur," answered the man—who was a young French creole. "M'sieur would better ride than walk."

"All right. Thank you," and Mr. Adams hailed an odd carriage, drawn by one horse between a of long curved shafts. They piled in.

"To the Isthmus dock," ordered Mr. Adams.

"You want to catch the Georgia?" asked the driver,

"We do."

"She's about coming in. They're looking for her."

"Will I have time to get our tickets?"

"Plenty. She'll lie over till morning."

"All right. Go ahead."

[Illustration] from Gold Seekers of '49 by Edwin Sabin


The driver flung out his lash, and away they whirled, down a rough street, along the river.

The dock bore a large sign, which said: "Steamers for the Isthmus and California." There was an enormous pile of baggage and a crowd of people, of all kinds, waiting. But the Georgia had not come in yet. Mr. Adams left Charley there to watch their baggage and was driven away in haste to get their tickets.

Suddenly a cry arose: "There she comes! That's she!" Down the broad river—never so broad as here—welled a cloud of black smoke, and a big steamer surged into view. What a big thing she was! She could carry two or three Robert Burnses. She was a side-wheeler, of course, but her paddle boxes stood as high as houses. Across her pilot house was a gilt sign reading "Georgia"—and on her paddle box, as she swung around, appeared another "Georgia," in large black letters.

Charley gazed in dismay, for every inch of her seemed occupied by passengers. The upper deck and middle deck and lower deck appeared full of figures, with heads craning to gaze.

"That's the boat," quoth a voice at Charley's elbow. He turned and found the Fremont man by his side, leaning on his long rifle. "Do you like her looks?"

"How are we to get on?" answered Charley. "Why, she's full already, isn't she?"

The Fremont man nodded, and smiled.

"I expect she is. She's built to carry 500 and they'll put 1500 on her. 'T isn't right—but it's the way they're doing, so as to make money. We'll be lucky to find sleeping space on deck, and get enough to eat. But everything goes, in the rush to California. If you think these Atlantic steamers are big boats, you ought to see the steamers on the other side."

"Are they better?"

"Considerably. The Pacific Mail Company runs them. They are better and better managed; but those boats'll be packed, too. All we can do is to make the best of it, after we've paid our money."

"Are you going on the Georgia?" hopefully asked Charley.

The Fremont man nodded.

"I'll go if I can find a six-foot space to lie down on—and I reckon I will."

The Georgia docked. A number of passengers hustled off, and then began the rush aboard. How the gold seekers shoved and scrambled and fought! The gangway was a mass of shoulders and hats and blanket rolls.

"Coming on?" invited the Fremont man, to Charley.

Charley hesitated. He was impatient, but he didn't know——

"I'm waiting for my father," he explained.

"We'd better find our places while we can, and have one ready for him," prompted the Fremont man.

He picked up the bed rolls, and hurried ahead, Charley at his heels. At the rail an official glanced at his ticket, and waved him to the upper deck. Charley followed. The ticket gave first-class cabin privileges, but what did these amount to, when 1500 passengers were being crowded upon a 500-passenger boat? Even standing room seemed to be valuable.

They pushed along through the mass of passengers and friends and relatives, who acted, some of them, too dazed and confused to move aside, and mounted the stairs leading to the upper decks. When they emerged into the open air, the Fremont man paused uncertainly, puffing, to survey the outlook.

"There's no chance for a berth, I suppose, is there?" he asked, of a clerk, passing.

The clerk scanned him impudently.

"No, sir. Every berth was taken before we left New York."

"Then why did the company sell us tickets?"

"That, sir," said the clerk, with an irritating smile, "is none of my business." And he hurried away.

"Well, we might as well begin to rough it now as any time," remarked the Fremont man, after a keen look at the back of the retreating clerk. "We'll have to make our own way—and I reckon we can do it. Come on."

He shouldered ahead, Charley in his wake. The emerged aft, on the upper deck.

"Wait here a moment," bade the Fremont man; and abruptly left Charley on guard over the baggage. He returned in a minute or two.

"No berths," he reported. "I wanted to find out. Now I know. We can sleep in the steerage, they tell me. Huh! Not after we've paid extra for fresh air. Let me look around."

He did, surveying the crowded deck. Suddenly picked up the baggage.

"I see a spot," he said, and led the way.

Just outside the rail, over the stern was slung a large boat—one of the ship's life-boats. It hung by ropes to the davits, and was covered with a tarpaulin, or canvas, stretched over it and tied down.

The Fremont man halted, at the rail, and pitched the baggage over upon the boat.

"There we are," he said with a smile, to Charley. "Some of us can sleep on top—and if it rains I reckon we can double under. Go get your father, now, and I'll hold the fort."

Away hurried Charley—excited, and in his mind the idea that this was to be the queerest bed that he had occupied yet. But he had faith in the big Fremont man.

He took a look from the rail, to watch the dock below. Most of the passengers up here were crowded at this rail, to survey just as he was surveying. The stern had been left comparatively free. There was his father—he recognized the tall figure, and the limp—just arrived below, gazing about anxiously. Charley yelled, and waved, but he could not make himself heard or seen. Too much else was going on. So he raced down, and rushed out upon the dock.

"Come on, quick, dad," he greeted, breathless. "We've found a place!"


"The Fremont man and I. He found it, though."

"Did you get a berth?" panted his father, following him. "They told me at the steamship office that every berth was taken long ago. I had to fight for the tickets, even. Never saw such a mob."

"No, not a berth. But it's a place, anyhow. You'll see."

In the short space of time the upper deck had grown more populous than ever. They worked their way through the crowd, Charley eagerly looking ahead for the Fremont man at his post.

"This is awful," spoke Mr. Adams. "The steamship company ought to be brought to law about it."

"There he is," directed Charley, gladly. "See him. We've got the life-boat!"

But perhaps they hadn't, for when they arrived, the Fremont man was calmly barring the way of three other men—among them the long-nosed man, who was doing most of the arguing on their part.

"No, gentlemen, you're too late," asserted the Fremont man, thrusting them back with his rifle-barrel held crosswise. "That boat's occupied."

Charley remembered to have seen the little gang much together, on the Georgia, drinking and gambling. They were a tough lot.

"Tell that to the marines," retorted the long-nosed man. "We'll have that boat, or we'll know a better reason than you're giving."

"Reason enough, and here's my proof," quoth the Fremont man. "The boat's pre-empted by us three. You must hunt another claim."

Mr. Adams promptly stepped forward, to the Fremont man's side.

"What's this about?" he demanded.

"Oh, it's you again, is it—you and your kid!" snarled the long-nosed man. "You're chalking up another score to settle, are you?" And, to his fellows: "What do you say, boys? Shall we throw them overboard?"

"Over they go," announced one of the other men—a thin sallow, drooping-moustached kind—with marvelous swiftness whipping from under his coat breast a fifteen-inch blade bowie-knife.

[Illustration] from Gold Seekers of '49 by Edwin Sabin


Charley's heart leaped into his throat with horror. He wanted to spring to his father's side, but his legs would not work. However, the affair was settled very easily. The Fremont man quickly handed his rifle to Mr. Adams, grabbed the long-nosed Jacobs, in bear-like grip, and fairly threw him into the man with the knife. Together the pair went down in a heap, almost knocking over several of the onlookers.

"You next," declared the Fremonter, with a jump at the third of the gang—who hastily recoiled, in alarm. So did the onlookers. So did the two men who were scrambling to their feet again. The Fremont man had proved as quick and as strong as a gorilla. Now he laughed grimly.

"Come on," he invited. "Come on with your knives or anything else that you have. But we won't go overboard just yet. We can't swim!"

The three fellows didn't "come on," worth a cent. The one with the knife hung back farthest of all. They sputtered and glared, a little uncertain just what to do with a man so energetic and fearless as the Fremont man.

"All right, boys," snarled the long-nosed man. "There's more than one way to deal with 'em. We don't want trouble. We're peaceable citizens. But if that boat doesn't belong to us, it doesn't belong to anybody." And he threatened, to the Fremont man and Charley's father: "In about five minutes we'll settle your hash."

With that he turned, and he and his two companions shouldered their way brusquely through the crowd.

The Fremont man laughed again.

"Fists are the only weapons needed with gentry of that class," he said, contemptuously. "Bah! I think more of Digger Injuns."

Some of the onlookers nodded and murmured assent. The half circle that had been attracted by the dispute broke up. Nobody had tried to interfere, even when the knife had been drawn. Charley soon found that similar contests for sleeping places were occurring everywhere aboard. It was a grand free-for-all rush.

Mr. Adams gave Charley an assuring nod, as if to say: "Here's a man who knows what to do and how to do it"; and he remarked, quietly, to their friend: "Thanks to you, I guess we're rid of that trouble."

"And easily rid, too," answered the Fremont man; he composedly reached for his rifle, leaned it against the rail, and standing on the bench running inside the rail began to rearrange the baggage on the canvas covering of the boat.

But he was interrupted, for there came in a hurry a ship's officer, as if sent by the long-nosed man.

"Here! Take your things off that boat," he ordered. "You can't use that boat. It's a life-boat."

"Where are we to stow ourselves, then?" queried Mr. Adams, at once.

"I don't know. But you can't use that boat."

"Will you give us a berth in place of it?"

"No, sir," informed the officer, crisply.

"We've got to have some place for ourselves and our personal baggage, sir," declared Mr. Adams. "Our tickets entitle us to a berth. We're doing the best we can, to keep from littering the deck; but if you insist on imposing further we'll carry the matter to Government authority and see whether we were not sold tickets under false pretenses."

The officer hesitated. Clearly, these three passengers knew how to stand up for themselves. He decided to let well enough alone.

"You occupy the boat at your own risk, then," he snapped. "The company does not hold itself liable. Understand that?"


The officer turned on his heel, and left them in possession.

"That settles us, I reckon," quoth the Fremont man, springing lightly down. "It's our claim."