Gold Seekers of '49 - Edwin Sabin

A Race up the River

The river landing was still the same scene of wild bustle, with the white people running up and down, darting hither-thither, all determined to set out at once. The dark-skinned natives were the cool ones amidst the flurry; and the boatmen were the coolest. Every canoe was constantly being pounced upon by fresh seekers who were yet without a craft, but the majority of the canoes seemed to have been engaged. However, a few boatmen evidently were holding out for higher pay.

Sure enough, the long-nosed man and one of his partners were hotly arguing with Maria at the bows, and offering him money; whereat Maria only shook his head, under its wide-brimmed braided straw hat, and scarcely paused in his work of thatching the canopy. Francisco stood looking on and listening. He was a strapping big fellow, not very black, wearing loose cotton pantaloons. In his ears were brass rings, for earrings. Just as Charley and his father arrived, the long-nosed man roughly seized Maria by the shoulder, as if to jerk him from his work and force him to take the money. At that, Francisco sprang forward like a panther, grabbed the long-nosed man by the collar, and flung him head over heels, along the mud.

Well plastered, the long-nosed man picked himself up, and glared at Francisco. By-standers laughed. Mr. Jacobs make a step forward, as if to leap while Francisco waited, panting and ready. But Mr. Jacobs's partner said, shortly: "Come along. We can't waste time here," and with a parting scowl the long-nosed man turned away with him.

Neither of them seemed to have noticed whose boat it was. All they wanted now was anybody's boat, of any kind. Charley was glad to see them go.

Francisco grinned at Mr. Adams and Charley. From the stern where he was sitting Mr. Grigsby approved, to Francisco, with a jocular sentence in Spanish, at which Francisco grinned again. Maria spoke aside, and Mr. Adams nodded, translating to Charley:

"Maria says we have paid for the boat and it is our boat. He and Francisco want it understood that they are gentlemen and honest."

"As long as we treat them right they'll treat us right," put in Mr. Grigsby. "We're lucky. I've seen some of these boats change hands half a dozen times, already."

"Yes; when once you get to bribing there's no end to it," asserted Mr. Adams. "I don't trust anybody I can bribe."

The baggage was in the boat; the small trunk toward the stern, and bedding rolls arranged toward the bows. Francisco had dumped in a boiled ham and a sack of rice; he took the other supplies from Charley and his father, and stowed them also. A pair of broad-bladed paddles lay along the gunwales, fore and aft.

"Go ahead," spoke Maria, stepping back from the canopy. He motioned his passengers into the canoe.

"Good!" said Mr. Adams. "Get into the bows, Charley. You and I'll sit amidships, Grigsby. How many canoes ahead of us?"

"About a dozen, I reckon."

"We ketch 'em," assured Maria, confidently.

He and Gonzales seized the gunwales and bent low, shoving. The dug-out slipped down the slimy bank, through the ooze, into the water, and with final shove Maria and Francisco vaulted aboard. Maria in the stern, behind the trunk, Francisco kneeling at Charley's feet, between the bedding rolls, they grasped their paddles, and swung the canoe up-stream. With a few powerful strokes they left behind them the bank, where the white horde, crazed by the sight of another boat making start, shouted and gestured more frantically than ever.

Charley just glimpsed still another boat putting out from the landing, when his canoe swept around a curve, and landing and crowd and village all were blotted from view by a mass of foliage. Even the sounds of bargaining ceased. The canoe might have been a thousand miles into the wilderness, where nobody lived.

"All right," remarked Charley's father, settling himself comfortably. "Now 'go ahead,' as they say. There are 300 people waiting at Panama for the California, and I only hope we get there in time."

"Maria says we'll reach Cruces in three days, if we don't have accidents," spoke Mr. Grigsby. "Might as well enjoy the scenery."

The dug-out was called a cayuca. It was about twenty feet long, but very narrow, and was hollowed from a single trunk of mahogany—for mahogany was as common down here as pine up North. Charley felt quite luxurious, riding in a mahogany boat!

He never had dreamed of such scenery. The crooked river flowed between a perfect mass of solid green blotched with blazes of flowers. Bananas, plantains, cocoa and other palms, bread-fruit, gigantic teak trees, dense leaved mangoes, acacias and mangroves on stilt roots like crutches, sugar-cane, sapotes with sweet green fruit the size of one's head, sapodillas with fruit looking like russet apples, mahogany, rose-wood, and a thousand others which neither Mr. Grigsby nor Charley's father recognized, grew wild, as thick as grass—and every tree and shrub was wreathed with flowering vines trying to drag it down. Monkeys and parrots and other odd beasts and birds screamed and gamboled in the branches; and in the steeply rising jungle and in the water strange noises were continually heard. There were violent splashes and snorts from alligators—and Mr. Grigsby saw two wild boars. Now and then sluggish savannahs or swamps opened on right or left, filled with vegetation and animals.

It was the rainy season and the river was running full, about seventy-five yards wide, with a strong current in the middle. Paddling hard, Maria and Francisco zigzagged from side to side across the bends, seeking the stiller water and the eddies. Trees bent over and almost brushed the canoe—and suddenly Maria, in the stern, cried out and pointed.

"Python!" he uttered. "Mira! (Look!)"

He and Francisco backed water and stared. So did their passengers, and well it was that the canoe had been stopped. From the lower branches of a large leafy tree jutting out into the very course of the canoe was hanging a long, mottled object, swaying and weaving. Charley saw the head—a snake's head! A boa constrictor, as large around as a barrel, and with most of its body hidden in the tree!

"Ha!" exclaimed Mr. Grigsby, and raised his rifle. With single movement the two boatmen swung the canoe broadside and held it. The Fremonter sent eagle glance adown his leveled barrel—the rifle cracked and puffed a little waft of smoke. "Spat!" sounded the bullet. The huge snake began to writhe and twist, fairly shaking the tree; then fold by fold it issued, in a horrid mazy line of yellow and black (would it never end?), until with a plash the last of it fell into the water and swirling the surface the monster disappeared.

"Bueno! Bueno! Mucho culebra (Good! Good! Big snake)" exclaimed Maria; and chattering in Spanish he and Francisco hastily veered the canoe further from the bank.

"They say the snake's mate is liable to be near and we'd better stand out," explained Mr. Adams. "He was a big one, sure."

"Forty feet, I judge," answered Mr. Grigsby.

"Where'd you hit him?" asked Charley, eagerly.

"In the eye," asserted Mr. Grigsby. "You don't think a Fremont man would shoot for any other mark, do you?"

Mile after mile steadily paddled Maria and Francisco, up the magic river. Already their bronze bodies, sinewy and naked, were glistening with perspiration, for in here, between the high wooded hills, it was very hot and moist. Charley's neck was tired, from twisting his head so that he could see everything at once; and on their seat amidships his father and Mr. Grigsby were constantly craning right and left.

Abruptly Maria and Francisco ceased paddling, threw aside their plaited hats, kicked off their cotton trousers, and crying together "Bano! Bano!" plunged overboard. Charley gazed in alarm. What had happened? Another boa threatening? But his father and Mr. Grigsby read his alarmed face and laughed.

"Oh, they're just taking a swim, that's all," explained his father. "They said 'bano,' which is Spanish for bath."

Nevertheless, this struck Charley as a dangerous thing to do, in a river swarming with alligators and other reptiles; yet frisking about and blowing and ducking Maria and Francisco seemed to be enjoying themselves. They swam like seals.

"We might as well have a snack to eat, while we wait," quoth Mr. Grigsby. He threw Charley some bananas, and cut off chunks of the dried meat for the company. By the time they three had eaten a little lunch, Maria and Francisco had climbed aboard, donned their trousers and hats, and resuming their paddles were starting on again, evidently much refreshed.

In the straightaways behind and before other canoes, hurrying up-river, were sighted. One of the canoes behind crept closer and closer. Maria and Francisco occasionally glanced over their wet shoulders at it, but although they worked bravely, and Maria sang lustily:

Yankee doodle doodle doo,

Yankee doodle dandy;

Yankee doodle doodle doo,

Yankee doodle dandy.

Yankee doodle dandy,

Yankee doodle dandy,

Yankee doodle doodle doo,

Yankee doodle dandy!

The canoe behind was proving too much for them. Meanwhile Charley wondered how Maria had invented his "American" song.

The canoe behind held seven persons; and of course it could overhaul Charley's canoe, for four of the persons were paddlers. Charley, facing backward in the bows, had the best view of it; and as on it came, the four paddlers digging hard, he saw, as somehow he had expected, that the three passengers were the long-nosed man and two partners.

With its paddlers grunting in unison, the water spurting from the prow, and the three passengers lolling back, it surged past. One of Mr. Jacobs's cronies yelled, mockingly: "Want a tow?"—and the paddlers grinned.

"No matter," panted Maria, to his own company. "We ketch 'em. Dey pay big mooney; pay more 'fore dey get dere. You bet."

The river ran swifter, now, and Maria and Francisco worked their level best to make way against the heavy, muddy current. The sun was almost touching the high green ridge to the west, when Mr. Grigsby, who had sharp eyes, said, with a nod of his head:

"That must be Gatun, where we stop for the night."

The canoe was turning in toward the right bank; and Charley, looking, saw a cluster of thatched huts there. A number of other canoes were tied at the bank, and their boatmen and passengers were loafing among the huts. A loud dispute was going on between some boatmen and passengers. As Charley's boat glided up, and Francisco leaped ashore to hold it, the long-nosed man's angry tones sounded loud and familiar. It was he and his two partners who were threatening their boatmen.

"We want to go on. Go on—understand? We paid you extra; big money. No stop here; no stop. You savvy?"

But the boatmen shrugged their bare shoulders, and sauntered away, leaving the three men furious.

"No use, pardner," called another gold seeker. "These niggers always stop here for the night. You might as well swallow your cud."

"But we paid them one hundred dollars to take us straight through," rasped Mr. Jacobs.

"Yes, and stole another party's boat in the bargain, I understand," retorted the gold seeker. "Serves you right."

"Well, I'd like to have them up North for about ten minutes," growled the man who had drawn knife on Mr. Grigsby aboard the Georgia. "I'd tan their hides for 'em."

"Shucks! Such tall talk doesn't go down here," answered the other. "They're as free as you are, and no crookeder."

He plainly enough was somebody not afraid to speak his mind; and since they were getting the worst of the argument the three scallawags quit complaining.

"We'll have to hustle to find lodging here," spoke Mr. Adams, rather dubiously surveying the crowd and the huts.

And indeed the outlook was not promising. The village was small and dirty, squatting here amidst bananas and palms and sugar-cane, its people the same kind as at Chagres. (To-day the surface of the great Gatun Lake, formed by the famous Gatun dam which has blocked the course of the Chagres River in order to obtain water for the big canal, covers old Gatun village—and other villages besides.)

There seemed to be enough gold seekers here, now, to fill every hut to overflowing. But Maria (who appeared to have taken a fancy to his party) came pattering back from an errand, and beckoned to Mr. Adams.

"It looks as though Maria had found something for us," said Charley's father, as they followed Maria.

Maria led them beyond the village, and behind a screen of banana trees, to a little hut crouched there cosily. The owner of the hut, and his wife, stood in the doorway.

They wore a long, clean cotton shirt apiece. Half a dozen children who wore nothing at all were peeping out from behind their parents' skirts.

The man and woman bowed grandly, and Maria spoke in Spanish.

"The house is ours, he says," informed Charley's father. "Good! Now how about something to eat, I wonder?"

That was soon answered. When they filed through the doorway, to inspect, here was a cane table set with supper—fried eggs, fried bread-fruit, also real bread, baked bananas, sweet potatoes, beef dried in strips, black coffee—and in the middle of the table a baked something that looked exactly like a baked baby!

"Oh!" cried Charley, startled. "What's that?"

"A baked monkey, 'pon my word!" exclaimed his father. "Well, that's more than I can go."

"I'm no cannibal, myself," quoth Mr. Grigsby. "Fact is, I'd rather eat outside."

"No, I'll have them take it away," opposed Mr. Adams; and amidst laughter the baked monkey was removed.

They sat on the earthen floor and ate. Things tasted mighty good. The huts had no windows, and a dirt floor. A woven grass hammock swung from the poles, and a number of cowhides were laid like a couch. Maria said something about "muchacho" (which Charley knew was Spanish for boy) and pointed to the hammock.

"That's yours," translated Charley's father, to Charley. "We men sleep on those hides, I suppose."

While eating, Charley began to prickle, and shrugging his shoulders politely scratched. His partners were doing the same, and Mr. Grigsby laughed.

"Fleas!" he grunted. "That's all. Got to expect them. Otherwise we're lucky."

Fleas? There were millions of them! They hopped even over the food; but Charley was so hungry that he couldn't stop for that. He scratched and ate.

Darkness descended early in the jungle. Maria and Francisco said that they'd all start up-river again at daybreak, or five o'clock, so it behooved the party to get to bed. Charley took one stroll, after supper, into the village, sight-seeing. The village was a-riot with noise. The natives were beginning a dance, to the light of torches, on the grass, for the entertainment of the visitors. Tom-toms whanged, flutes screeched, people cheered, and a number of the gold seekers were acting like rowdies. It was a wild scene, amidst flaring torches; but Charley thought best to beat a retreat to the safety of the hut.

With his clothes on he clambered into his hammock. His father and Mr. Grigsby lay on the pile of hides. Where the family slept could not be found out; Maria and Francisco slept in the boat, to guard the baggage.

Half the night the uproar in the village continued, but this did not bother Charley as much as the fleas did. They accompanied him into his hammock, and were busy every minute, it seemed to him. And judging by the sounds from his father and Mr. Grigsby, there were fleas enough to go around, with some to spare!

Charley thought that he had just fallen asleep, when he was awakened by a tremendous roar. The hut was shaking, his hammock trembled, and the world seemed ablaze. He half sat up, staring about him. Oh, a thunder-storm! But what a storm! The storm that had caught him in the boat aboard ship was only a shower, compared with this storm in the tropical jungle. The rain was falling in a solid mass as if poured from a gigantic bucket, while the red lightning blazed without a pause. There was no wind; it was the weight of the water that made the hut tremble—of rain drumming so steadily that even the thunder was scarcely noticeable.

The interior of the hut was constantly light. He saw his father and Mr. Grigsby also sitting up—and on the floor the water was running an inch deep.

"Stay where you are, Charley," bade his father. "You're all right. We can't do better."

That was so; and so long as his father and Mr. Grigsby were not frightened, Charley determined that he need not be, either. So he lay, high and pretty dry (the rain beat through the thatch in a thin mist), and wondered where all that water came from. He also wondered how Maria and Francisco were faring. But probably they knew how to take care of themselves, because they lived down here.

The storm passed; on a sudden the rain stopped, the lightning died away; and Charley fell asleep in earnest.

When he awakened the hut was pink with morning. His father was standing in the doorway, looking out; Mr. Grigsby was gone. His father turned, as Charley stirred; and said:

"Hello. Ready to start?"

"Yes. Is it time?"

"High time. We overslept a little. You'd better tumble out. There's some coffee on the table, waiting for you. Drink it, and we'll go on and finish breakfast in the boat."

Out piled Charley, hastily swallowed a cup of coffee, and was ready—all but washing, which he determined he could do at the river. He was stiff and flea-bitten, but otherwise felt all right.

He followed his tall father out into the fresh morning. Everything was dripping and soggy, but the sun was going to shine, and dry the world off. Together they trudged through the wetness, into the village. Other gold seekers were trooping down to the river, and the villagers, yawning and weary-eyed after the dance, were watching them, and collecting money due for entertainment.

Mr. Grigsby was standing on the river bank, leaning on his rifle and gazing about rather puzzled, while canoe after canoe was pushing off.

"No hurry," he spoke, when Charley and Mr. Adams arrived in haste. "Save your breath."

"Why's that?" asked Mr. Adams, sharply.

"Our canoe's gone, and so are our boatmen!"