Gold Seekers of '49 - Edwin Sabin

Charley Loses Out

"Who are you?" demanded the captain, brusquely.

"I'm one of your passengers; that's enough. I've paid my money to get to San Francisco with reasonable comfort and dispatch. We are late now, and overloaded, and I protest against your delaying to take more passengers aboard."

"I'm running this ship. You get back where you belong," ordered the captain.

"This is a party of tramps," bawled the long-nosed man. "They've come off the beach with a forged letter. I know 'em. I'll report you to the company. I'll see if the United States Government won't——"

"For shame!"

"Put him out!"

"Throw him overboard!"

Cries from the other passengers interrupted him; and so did the captain.

"Here! Chuck this fellow aft!" he called, to the sailors. "If he makes any more fuss, put him below and keep him there." And he summoned, to Mr. Adams: "Come aboard, and hurry up."

So on up the stairs clambered Charley.

"Good-bye," he called back, to young Mr. Motte.

Mr. Grigsby and Charley's father followed; and on the instant the captain hurried to the bridge. The steamer's paddle-wheels began to turn; she glided ahead.

Sailors closed the rail, and Charley and his two companions were left standing there. Below, the two canoes fell behind. Charley waved to them, and was answered.

So at last they actually were off, on the last leg of their journey to California. It had been a narrow squeak.

"That long-nosed individual seems to prefer your absence to your company," remarked Mr. Grigsby, leaning upon his rifle and glancing coolly about.

"Yes. We've some information he thinks he can use better than we can," answered Mr. Adams.

"You may have to deal with him pretty smartly, if he crosses your trail many more times," observed Mr. Grigsby.

"We will, when necessary," promised Mr. Adams. "We'll take care of ourselves; eh, Charley?"

"Yes, sir," promptly agreed Charley.

"Very good," said Mr. Grigsby. "As I size him up—and his two pards, too—he'll be afraid to do much more, aboard this ship. He's gone as far as is safe for him. But when you reach San Francisco, then look out. Meanwhile I'll help you keep an eye on him."

"Thank you, sir," responded Mr. Adams.

Out through the open Bay of Panama majestically swept the California; past several small rocky islands, with some islands ahead on the left or south which were said to be the famous Pearl Islands, where pearls as large as filberts were found plentifully. In about an hour stop was made at the equally famous Island of Taboga—the most beautiful place, as seemed to Charley, in the world. It had a white beach; from the beach rose long slopes of green, shaded by bananas, palms, figs, plantains, oranges, limes—every kind of tropical growth. And these slopes were gayly colored with tiers of peak-roofed huts and houses, in pink and yellow and brown and blue and red. Along the beach were scores of white canoes. The people of Taboga, mostly negroes and mixed breeds, appeared to have nothing to do but loaf about and fish and eat and play. It was a sort of a resort place.

At Taboga the California took on fresh water, and on she steamed, for the open sea.

Gradually the walls and houses of Panama, and even mighty Ancon Hill, faded from view.

The captain came down from the bridge, and approached the little party.

"I'll turn over my cabin to you, for sleeping quarters," he announced, rather more kindly than before. "You'll all have to bunk in together, some way, but I'll rig you up a cot. I'll pair off with the first mate."

"We can't permit that, sir," answered Mr. Adams, at once. "Not a bit. Any place on deck will do. We slept on deck, to Chagres, and we can do the same here."

"No, sir," and the captain spoke decisively. "We're overloaded, and you'll not find a spot vacant. I'll fare very well with the mate. I can use the cabin daytimes, when necessary. You must have done the handsome thing by Crosby, and I'll return the compliment as far as possible. The steward will have your luggage stowed away, and show you where you belong."

So saying, the captain left, not waiting for thanks.

The cabin, of course, was airy and convenient, and to occupy it made Charley feel like a personage of importance. Mr. Grigsby chose the cot (which was to be folded away during the day), and insisted on Charley and his father taking the berth. After arranging their baggage, they might stroll about and inspect the ship.

By this time the California was headed well out to sea. Evidently the Pacific Mail Steamship Company was wealthy and progressive. The California was much larger and finer than the Georgia, her decks were scrubbed smooth and white, her brass-work highly polished, and everything looked to be in apple-pie order. Her table, too, proved to be better supplied than the table on the Georgia. In a large pen, forward of the wheel-house, surrounding a platform built for the purpose, were confined a quantity of cattle, sheep and hogs, for fresh meat. Every day or so several were slaughtered. Over the upper deck were stretched shade awnings. Officers and crew were smart and spick and span.

But, like the Georgia, the California was too crowded for real comfort. From the steerage, below, to the first cabin or upper deck, the passengers had occupied every kind of quarters; the sea was smooth, so that few were seasick, but the sun beat down from directly overhead, out of a sky almost cloudless, and even under the awnings the heat and moisture were well-nigh unendurable. The gold seekers who clung to their heavy boots and trousers and flannel shorts fairly panted.

However, it was a three weeks' voyage, now, and there was no retreat. Anyway, people said that after crossing the Tropic of Cancer, there would be more of a breeze, and the weather would cool off rapidly, the nearer the California got to San Francisco.

The majority of the passengers had come across the Isthmus from the Georgia, and Charley recognized a number of them. The long-nosed man and his two cronies carefully kept away from the Adams party; Charley saw them only occasionally. After all, they were cowards, with guilty consciences.

"Charley," said his father, that afternoon while they were together, "what do you think of telling Mr. Grigsby about the mysterious miner we took care of, back home, and his Golden West mining claim? Seems to me Grigsby's a thoroughly honest man, he's been of great help to us, and while he hasn't asked any questions he must be wondering why our friend Jacobs is hounding us so."

"Yes, sir; I think he ought to know," asserted Charley.

"All right; we'll tell him to-night. Then he'll understand the situation, and it may save us trouble. Besides, it's only fair. We don't want him to support us blindfolded."

"No, sir," agreed Charley.

So that night, while turning in, in the cabin, Mr. Adams laid the situation before the tall Fremonter. He explained the whole affair, from the beginning to the sailing of the Georgia. And he showed the scrawl by the mysterious miner, and the rough sketch and the buckskin bags.

Mr. Grigsby thoughtfully nodded.

"I see," he mused, studying the sketch map. "Map's not very clear, though. Might be a map of the American River, out of Sutter's Fort. That's the main overland emigrant trail, down from the Sierra, and where the first gold excitement led. Or it might be the Feather, or the Yuba. 'G. H.' of course means 'gold here'; it's the regular sign. Six G. H.'s—one of 'em smudged. Huh! Yep, if I were you I'd try the American River first; but you want to look mighty sharp. It's no great feat in the gold fields to jump another fellow's claim, and even if you get there ahead that other party's liable to be hot after you to oust you."

"Charley and I'll defend our rights," said Mr. Adams, stanchly.

"Well," continued Mr. Grigsby, "if I'm around you can count on me. And there'll be other men who won't be inclined to stand for skullduggery. The diggin's will be put under law and order, after a bit, or else no man's life or property will be safe for a day. But until then, look out, and keep looking out."

"We will," assured Mr. Adams, nodding confidently at Charley, who soberly nodded back.

"And if I were you," added the Fremonter, "I'd tuck those papers in a safe place. Wouldn't leave them around anywhere. See?"

"I've been carrying them on my own person," explained Mr. Adams.

"The very place where anybody wanting them by hook or crook would look first," said the Fremonter.

"Humph!" admitted Mr. Adams. "That's probably so." He looked about thoughtfully. "But I don't know of a better place—'twouldn't do to stick them anywhere in the cabin, or the baggage. Here!" he exclaimed, struck with an idea. "What's the matter with Charley! Nobody would suspect that a boy was in charge of valuables. Charley, you take these and tuck them away on you where they'll be safe."

"Put them in your shoe—or in your bootleg when you wear boots," instructed Mr. Grigsby.

"What about night?" asked Charley.

"I'll tend to the nights," grimly said the Fremonter. "You might change them to your pillow, nights, and they wouldn't be any safer and you'd be apt to forget them. But my cot will be across the doorway, nights, and I in it."

"Very good," approved Mr. Adams. And so Charley carried the papers in his shoe.

For a week the California sped on, over a smoothly rolling blue sea, accompanied by the gulls and porpoises and the steady thumps of her huge paddle-wheels. On the right, or east, the coastline was at first high and mountainous, but soon became only a bluish line, across the miles of water. The decks were hot, amidst this summer sea! Almost every night there was a gorgeous sunset; yet even after sunset the thermometer stood over eighty in the cabins.

On up the full length of Central America ploughed the California; past Costa Rica and Nicaragua and Salvador and Guatemala—all of which looked about the same, at this distance, no matter how they were colored on the maps. Next came the coast of Mexico; and swinging in, the California made for Acapulco.

Beautiful was the coast of Mexico, hereabouts: a long strip of white beach where the blue surf broke; behind, vivid green hills, their bases dotted with white towns; and further behind, tremendous mountain-ranges, piercing the clouds.

Acapulco seemed as hard to find as Chagres. The California acted as if she were going to butt right into the beach; and the passengers, crowded along the landside rails, eagerly waiting, could make out no harbor. Yet Acapulco was said to have the finest harbor between Panama and San Francisco; and there was Acapulco itself—the old fort guarding the harbor, the roofs of houses beyond it, and the tips of masts betokening where ships lay at anchor.

Between horizon and sky, far up the coast, over the sea floated a thread of black smoke. Another steamer, this, passengers said; and Mr. Grigsby, whose eyes were so keen, agreed. The smoke seemed to attract considerable attention from the ship's officers, and the captain surveyed it long through his spy-glass. However, Acapulco, where they were to be permitted to land for an hour or two, was of more importance to the passengers; and landward the majority of eyes were turned.

Only when the California had passed between a rocky island and a high bluff or headland, did the harbor of Acapulco unfold, so cleverly was it fashioned. Like a huge basin it was, scooped from the cliffy shore, as if a giant shark had taken out a big bite. So steep were the whitish cliffs, that several small vessels were lying right under them. A dazzling beach fringed the edge of the great basin; palms and other trees shaded it. On a high point was the castle, or fortress of San Diego, similar to, but not so ruined as old Fort Lorenzo at the mouth of the Chagres.

The California steamed on, when suddenly "Boom!" sounded her signal gun, to announce her arrival.

From the leafy town people came running down to the beach, and a regular flock of canoes made a mad race from the beach for the ship.

The ship's boat was lowered, and was pulled away for the shore, bearing the first mate. Word was spread that passengers might go ashore, for four hours; the gun would be fired again at sailing time.

"The hottest place on the American continent," pronounced Mr. Adams. "So I heard when I was in Mexico during the war. Those hills shut off the breeze, and the heat hangs night and day. Thermometer stands at 120 degrees in the shade, for days at a time. That gap in the hill-line yonder must be the gash cut by the Spaniards, in early times, to make a current of air. Now do you want to go ashore, Grigsby?"

"Well, I rather think I will," drawled Mr. Grigsby, good-naturedly. "It may be the last chance to stretch our legs for some days. I'm not used to cramped quarters, after having had half a continent to tramp over."

"All right, I'll go with you," said Mr. Adams. "How about you, Charley?"

Charley decided that he'd as soon stay where he was, for things around the ship began to look interesting. The foremost of the boats from shore had reached the vessel. They were heaped with cocoanuts, bananas, oranges, limes, plantains, cakes, and shells, the smaller shells being stitched together in odd patterns. As more boats arrived, a sort of a market was opened. Many of the boats were rowed by women, who smoked cigars while the men with them did the selling. A line attached to a basket or bag of matting was tossed up over the rail. Any passenger who wished to purchase drew up the basket or bag, put a piece of money in it, and then the man in the boat exchanged fruit or cakes or shell-work for the money, and the passenger drew up the basket or bag again.

But the greatest sport was to watch the little boys diving for dimes and quarters. Almost every boat had a boy or two aboard, who immediately jumped over into the water, and paddled around the ship. None of the boys wore any clothing—and how they could swim and dive! It seemed no effort at all for them to stay on top, wriggling their hands and feet a little, like fishes' fins; and when a coin was tossed near them, down went their heads, up went their heels, and through the transparent water they darted, for the money. They could be clearly seen until they grabbed it, and turned for the top. On the surface they held up the money, as proof that they had it; then they popped it into their mouth and clamored for more.

Charley rather wished that his father and Mr. Grigsby had stayed to see the sport; but they had gone ashore in a canoe, and so had a number of other passengers, including the long-nosed man.

It looked like great fun, down there in the smooth green water, so clear and cool. With resounding splashes several passengers, in undershirts and cotton trousers, dived from the rail and joined the naked black and yellow boys, who made much sport of them. As well try to catch eels, as those nimble urchins. Why, said a passenger near Charley, the natives down hereabouts could swim twenty miles, and those boys themselves could keep afloat all day!

"Here, you white boy," spoke Charley's neighbor, at the rail. "Can't you get in there and do something for your country? Can you swim?"

He was a pleasant looking man, with iron-gray hair and beard, and wore white linen. He might have been a banker. The California held all kinds of Forty-niners.

"Yes, sir; some. I can swim in the Mississippi," answered Charley. "But I can't swim like that."

"Well, jump in and show us, anyhow. You're the only boy aboard. Maybe those fellows never saw a white boy swim. Maybe they think you can't swim. Show them."

"All right," agreed Charley, not a bit afraid to do his best, although he knew very well that he was only a boy and not a fish. It would be fun, anyhow.

So he hastened to the cabin, stripped like the men had stripped, and in his undershirt and cotton trousers back he pattered to the rail. The water looked farther down than he had figured, but of course he wouldn't back out, now; and accompanied by a hearty cheer from the passengers, over he plumped. As soon as he struck the water, all the boys near there made a rush for him, yelling.

Up he rose, right in their midst—and just as he had expected, he was no match for them at swimming or diving. They cut circles around him, and under and over, and the "showing" he made did not amount to much, he feared. Still, he proved that he could swim, and was not afraid, and as he paddled about he grinned. They soon found out that they could beat him easily enough, getting the coins; but he didn't want the coins, and the water was delightfully luke-warm—just right; so they all were contented.

Really, it was much better here than up on the hot deck, and Charley was well satisfied with the change, when aloft, along the rail, a great hubbub sounded. Passengers were pointing and craning about, and most of them rushed away, to the other side.

"The Panama!" they were calling. "That's she! Down from San Francisco. She's coming in. Now for some news."

Even the natives were gazing. For the stairs swam the men who had jumped overboard, and for the stairs swam Charley also. The Panama? Sure! She was sister ship to the California, and by the talk she was coming in, bound down from California.

When Charley gained the deck he, too, looked. He saw the thread of black smoke increased to a wide plume and very near. Beneath the plume was a large steamer, already headed into the harbor entrance. Great excitement reigned aboard the California.

Majestically the Panama glided into the harbor, and dropped anchor only a long stone's throw from the California. "Boom!" spoke her signal gun, and for her raced, again, the fleet of bumboats.

Her rail was black-and-white with passengers, staring across at the passengers of the California. Men began to yell back and forth.

"Where's your gold?"

"Here! Where's yours?" and some of the Panama's passengers held up round little buckskin sacks; others slapped their shirt bosoms; and one man, amidst laughter, even held, in both hands, a large gunny sack which probably contained potatoes or yams.

"How are things at the mines?"

"Booming. Better hurry or you'll be too late, stranger."

"Plenty of gold?"

"Millions of it."

"How much can one man dig in a day?"

And so forth, and so forth. Several of the California passengers, who had been in the water before, plunged in again and daringly swam over to the Panama, so as better to get the news.

Lighters, or scows, had been unloading live-stock and other supplies into the California, and what looked to be the ship's boat was putting out from the shore. Suddenly "Boom!" spoke the ship's gun, as signal that she was about to weigh anchor. Down to the beach hurried the passengers who had gone ashore. Charley knew that his father and Mr. Grigsby would be among them. The sun had set, and a little breeze blew coolly on his wet garments, so he scampered to the cabin, to change.

Just as he reached the threshold he thought of his shoes. Shucks! He had never thought, when he had taken them off in such haste, and he had left them lying with the precious papers in one of them! In fact, he had not locked the door, had he? Anyway, the door was unlocked now—and in he hastened, his heart in his mouth. His shoes were lying there. He picked one up, but it contained no papers. He grabbed the other and explored it. It contained no papers. Maybe they had stuck to his stockings, then. He hoped so. But, alas, no papers were to be found, anywhere, on his stockings, or near his stockings, or under the bunk, or—anywhere.

He rushed out on deck again, peering, following his course to the rail. That was no use, either. The papers were gone; he had lost them, or somebody had taken them.

What a foolish boy he had been!