Gold Seekers of '49 - Edwin Sabin




Tit for Tat

Francisco spoke to the family in the hut, and rising, one of them lighted a candle. It was a two-story hut, and quarters were engaged in the up-stairs room for the three in Charley's party; while Captain Crosby and the sick man were given a place on the ground-floor.

The up-stairs was entered by a ladder. There was nothing better to be done than to sleep in wet clothes; and Charley, on his grass mat, was just beginning to be drowsy and fairly comfortable, and barely heard his father say to Mr. Grigsby: "We ought to pull out at daybreak, but that depends on what we can do for the captain," when the captain himself came poking up through the hole in the floor.

"Hello!" he said. "It's Crosby. Are you awake?"

"Yes, sir. What's wanted?"

"Nothing, thank you. I suppose you'd like to get away early."

"As early as possible, captain. But we're at your service."

"Your time is valuable now, gentlemen. Mine isn't. If you're going to catch the California, you haven't a moment to waste."

"We'll miss the California, rather than leave you in the lurch."

"You'll not miss her, if you make an early start and go right on through. I told you you wouldn't lose by your kindness to my mate and me, and you won't. I stay here; you go on whenever you choose."

"No, sir," said Mr. Adams. "If we can help you any we'll stay by you."

"I stop here," announced the captain. "As for my mate, he stops, too. He'll never travel again. Tomorrow I bury him. He's gone, making his last trip, and I expect he's landed in a better port than California. What I do next I don't know. Go back to Chagres, maybe. At any rate, here's his ticket from Panama up to San Francisco." By the flicker of the storm, now retreating, Captain Crosby was revealed groping across the floor, and extending a folded paper.

"What's that for?" demanded Mr. Adams.

"You're to take it and use it. Sell it, is my advice. You can get six hundred or more dollars for it, at Panama."

"I'll take and sell it, if you say so; but I'll send you the money. Your friend's family ought to have that."

"My mate had no kin alive. I don't want the money, and I know him well enough to know that he'd want you to have it. Yes, I understand that you didn't help us out for pay—you or any in your party. This isn't pay; it's just a little tit for tat. Sell that ticket and divide the proceeds among you, not omitting the boy. It may tide you over a tight place, just as you tided us over a tight place. You see, the ticket's no good to me. And now there's another thing or two, before we part. You've run a big chance of getting left; and even if you reach Panama in time for the steamer, you're liable to find her full up ere that. Here's a note I've written to Captain Flowers, of the California. He's an old ship-mate of mine. I sailed with him before I got my papers, and we're as close as brothers. He's expecting me, at Panama, and he'd hold the ship for me, if possible. I've asked him to take your party on instead, and he'll do so even if he has to give up his own cabin. My two boatmen will ship with your craft and help your boys up-river from here to Cruces. There they'll find you the mules to carry you on to Panama. Without these fellows you might have difficulty to find any mules, for the crowd in advance probably has hired every tassel-tail in sight. But I'm known all along the trail from Chagres to Panama; I've been across time and again, and I have my lines laid. Now I think you're fixed for a quick passage."

"But, my dear man!" exclaimed Mr. Adams. "This is too much. We can't accept——"

"It isn't, and you can," retorted the captain, bluntly. "I'm not inconveniencing myself a particle, whereas your party took a risk. Now good-bye and good luck to you, gentlemen; and the same to you, my lad. Here are the documents. You'll find my boatmen with your boatmen in the morning. There'll not be much time to say good-bye then, if you start as early as I think you'll start. I'll leave word for you to be called at four o'clock."

So saying, the bluff captain shook hands all around, declined to listen to further thanks, and ducked back down the ladder.

"There's a good turn repaying another in short order," remarked Mr. Grigsby. "If we help somebody else off a snag we're likely to have a whole ship put at our disposal!"

"Well, don't look for that," laughed Mr. Adams. "I'd help the next man anyway."

"Certainly," agreed the Fremonter. "So would I."

And Charley sleepily determined that he would, also. But anyway, the future looked bright again.

"We ought to reach Cruces to-morrow, and Panama the day after," remarked Mr. Adams; which were the last words that Charley heard until he was shaken by the shoulder and his father's voice was saying: "All right, Charley. Time to start."

The interior of the room was not yet pink with very early morning. Charley stiffly scrambled to his feet, and followed his father down the ladder, and through the room below—treading carefully so as not to disturb the sleepers there. Mr. Grigsby already was out; and if Captain Crosby was awake he pretended to be asleep so as to avoid more thanks!

A little fire blazed on the river bank, near the boat. The boatmen had made coffee and boiled some rice in cocoa-milk for the breakfast, so that within fifteen minutes the boat was headed up-stream, on the spurt for Cruces.

Now urged by four paddlers instead of two, it fairly flew, cleaving the current while the dim shores and water grew lighter. The mountain divide ahead was gradually drawing closer, and all the country along the stream seemed steeper. One by one ranches were passed which in the midst of cleared forest and jungle looked more prosperous than the ranches of the lower river.

Well it was that the boat was equipped with four boatmen, for the current ran very swift off the high hills, and contained several rapids where two of the men—yes, and once all four of them—had to shove with poles. They constantly chewed sections of sugar-cane cut from an armful that had been tossed in at Pena Blanca. Charley tried the same stunt, and found that the sugar-cane juice was good for a lunch.

Shortly after noon the course made a long turn about the foot of a mighty, rounded hill, standing alone. Great trees clustered thickly to its top; and here, high above all, up rose a single straight palm, like a plume in the crown of a noble chief. The boatmen spoke, one to another, and Francisco pointed.

"There you are, Charley," said Mr. Adams. "That's Mount Carabali. It used to be a lookout for Indians and pirates. From that palm you can see both the Atlantic and the Pacific. We're about ten miles from Cruces."

In four miles more a large village called Gorgona was passed. During half the year this was the place where people crossing the Isthmus changed from boat to mule-back, but during the other half Cruces, six miles above, was the junction. (As for old Gorgona, to-day it has been swallowed, the most of it, by the greedy Gatun Lake of the big canal.)

Above Gorgona about two miles the Chagres River, whose course had mainly been east and west, turned sharply to the left, while a fork called the Obispo River continued on toward the Pacific. (Here, to-day, at the forks, the Gatun Lake ends, after swallowing Gorgona, and the celebrated Culebra Cut proceeds on west into the mountains, making a path for the great canal, with Panama only fifteen miles away. However, in 1849 and for many years afterward, the Panama Canal across the Isthmus was not visible to the eye. There was no Gatun Lake and no Culebra Cut; there was only the beautiful, tricky Chagres River, flowing between its high jungly banks and divided, above Gorgona, where the Obispo entered.) So the canoe carrying Charley and his party turned south up the Chagres, and toiled on, amidst rugged green walls, to Cruces, at last.

Las Cruces (The Place of Crosses) was situated on the west bank of the Chagres, and as the canoe approached appeared to be a village of much importance. As Charley had heard, it had been a famous old town, connected with Panama by a paved stone road called the Royal Road, over which treasure of gold and silver and pearls was borne by slaves and mules and horses, on the way from the Pacific to the Atlantic at Porto Bello and Nombre de Dios. Yes, and in 1670 Las Cruces was captured by the pirates of Henry Morgan (Morgan the Buccaneer, who sacked the whole Isthmus), on their way overland to attack Panama.

As the canoe grounded, old Cruces, with its regulation thatched cane huts and a few—very few—wooden buildings, looked sleepy enough in the late afternoon sunlight, as if treasure-trains and pirates and even those other gold seekers, the California Forty-niners, never had been here. One of Captain Crosby's boatmen, named Angel (and a queer black angel he was!), sprang nimbly ashore, to proceed on "up town." The other boatmen hauled the canoe higher.

"Angel's gone to find the mules," explained Mr. Adams, as all disembarked, glad to stretch their legs. "There's not an animal in sight; that's sure. The crowd ahead of us cleaned out the place."

"They didn't all get away, though. See the tents, yonder?" spoke Mr. Grigsby; for three tents had been pitched, not far back from the river, on the edge of the town.

Francisco saw, too, and shook his head vehemently, as did his comrades.

"Muy malo. Colera—mucha colera. Cuidado (Very bad. Cholera—much cholera. Be careful)," he said.

"Shouldn't wonder," muttered Mr. Adams.

"I'll go over," volunteered Mr. Grigsby, "and see if we can do anything." Shouldering his faithful rifle, the tall Fremonter strode for the tents.

When he returned he reported that Francisco had guessed truly: the tents held sick gold seekers, laid by with the dreaded cholera. But in a couple of more tents, beyond, were some engineers on a survey for the new Panama railroad. They had insisted that every horse and mule in the region had been gobbled by the gold-seeker crowd, and that the Adams party must wait for several days, at least, until the pack trains returned from Panama. However, here came Angel, grinning, and beckoning. He called shrilly; whereupon the three other boatmen promptly shouldered the baggage and started for him.

"Angel evidently has fixed us out," asserted Mr. Adams, as with Charley and Mr. Grigsby he followed.

"If he has he deserves his name," answered the Fremonter.

Angel led the way straight through the hot town, where the natives stared languidly at the little procession, to a large plantation beyond. Here, in a clearing devoted to maize and sugar-cane, amidst bananas and plantains and palms, and huge acacias laden with fragrant yellow blossoms, was nestled a white wooden house, two storied, encircled with porch and wide upper veranda. A path of white crushed shells led through luxuriant flowers to the front porch, where somebody was lying in a hammock. Charley felt rather awed, for this evidently was a wealthy ranch, belonging to cultured people.

As the party approached, crunching over the walk, the person in the hammock rolled out, to receive them. He proved to be a stout, heavy man, in loose white trousers, slippers, and white shirt. His complexion was swarthy, a magnificent black beard covered his chin and cheeks, and he plainly was a Spaniard. But he spoke good English.

"Welcome, senors," he greeted, with a wave of his hand. "I understand you are from my good friend El Capitan Crosby. If so, my house and all that is mine are at your disposal—a su disposicion, senors."

That was a pleasant speech, indeed. Still, Mr. Adams, like Charley, felt a little doubtful.

"Thank you, sir," he responded. "Captain Crosby was kind enough to tell us that we would find accommodations at Las Cruces, that is true. We left him down at Pena Blanca. But we do not wish to intrude upon you. Our main thought is to get to Panama; and if you know of any mules or horses, and a guide——"

The stout man courteously interrupted.

"Enough said, with your permission, senor. Horses and guide shall be found, of course; and meantime you will honor me by spending the night. You would gain nothing by attempting the trip before morning. The trail is bad enough, by day. This is the Hacienda las Flores, and I am Don Antonio de Soto. Let your men drop your baggage, which will be properly attended to, and be pleased to enter."

Mr. Adams introduced himself and party; and with Don Antonio refusing to listen to any apologies, into the house they went. It was delightfully cool there, where the rooms were high and large and simply furnished with cane chairs and couches. Don Antonio's wife, the Senora Isabella (and a beauty), came forward also to welcome them. In white dress, with a red rose stuck into her black hair, she took Charley's fancy at once. Then there was a boy, Pascal, about Charley's age—a handsome young fellow, slim and dark, with wonderful black-brown eyes and dazzling white teeth. Servants glided hither-thither, to bring glasses of lemonade and pine-apple juice, and to distribute the bed-rooms; and when Charley found himself confronted by a real bed, with a bath at his disposal, he thought that they all were in right good hands. He wished that his mother was here, too. The Senora made him rather homesick. How his mother would enjoy this place!

"We noticed the tents of some of the new railroad engineers, at the edge of town, sir," remarked Mr. Adams, at supper, where Charley, arrayed in his last clean suit of white, found the creamy beaten cocoa, served on a spotless table, was the most delicious thing that he had ever tasted. "I wonder how the work is going on."

"Excellently," responded Don Antonio. "I believe that a partial survey has been made clear across. From the Atlantic end at Limon Bay the line follows up along the right bank of the Chagres, about to Gorgona, where it crosses and uses the old treasure-trail over Culebra Pass to Panama."

"Then we'll see the survey, to-morrow?"

"No, senor, I fear not. You will follow the Camina Reale (Royal Road) from Cruces, which runs far to the northward of the other trail from Gorgona. But tell me, you being so lately from the United States, what is the report upon this Panama Railroad? The Americans are to build it, we hear."

"Yes, sir. A French company had the contract to cross this part of New Granada with a railroad, but they didn't do anything, and at the beginning of this year an American company got the right. The company is formed by William Henry Aspenwall, John Lloyd Stevens, and Henry Chauncy, of New York. The contract runs for forty-nine years from date of completion of the road, which must be finished within six years. No doubt the active construction will begin this fall or winter, at Colon; and I am glad to know that the preliminary survey is already being made. A railroad is badly needed."

"Ah, but the difficulties will be immense, senors," said the Dona Isabella. "Swamps, mountains, fevers, wild beasts, rains—!" and she exclaimed in Spanish, with despairing gesture of her white hands.

"It will be done, if the Americans go at it," asserted Don Antonio. "You Americans are a wonderful people. I shall send our Pascal north, this coming winter, to be an American. Eh, Pascal? He must learn English, too. I myself was educated at Lima, where there are many Americans and English."

"If I was going to be home you could send Pascal to St. Louis, Don Antonio," spoke Charley, impulsively. "Then I could show him 'round."

"He would enjoy that, I'm sure," answered Don Antonio; and Pascal, as if understanding, smiled friendly across the table at Charley.

"Yes, sir; a year or so in the States would do him good," agreed Mr. Grigsby.

"Our friend Captain Crosby will take care of him," said Don Antonio. "The matter has been arranged. And now after the railroad," he continued, "will come the ship canal, no doubt. That will be a still greater undertaking."

Mr. Adams nodded.

"Yes, I believe you. A canal across this Isthmus of Darien, as the old navigators termed it, has been talked of ever since 1520, when Charles the Fifth of Spain ordered a survey made. I expect to live to see the railroad completed; whether I or you or any of us here will see a canal, I don't know. But there'll be one; there'll be one."

That evening, after supper, Dona Isabella played charmingly on the guitar, while amidst the shrubbery before the house the enormous fire-flies made long streaks of light or blazed like jewels on leaf and twig. With the graceful Pascal Charley chased and captured some. Pascal had a wicker cage partly full of them, and used it as a lantern. He lent it to Charley to go to bed by!

From the chase Charley returned to the porch in time to hear Don Antonio discussing the road to Panama.

"The distance is twenty miles," he said, "and must be made in daylight. The old road is not what it was in the time of golden Panama, when it was kept open by the treasure trains. I would not hurry you, gentlemen, but you should start early in the morning, for this is our rainy season and you are liable to be delayed."

"It is a paved road, you say, sir?" queried Mr. Adams.

"After a fashion," smiled Don Antonio, "but laid more than 300 years ago. From Panama to Cruces it was paved with flat stones, and was made wide enough for two carts to pass one another. That, too, senors, was a great undertaking, through the jungle and over the mountains, and hundreds of poor natives died at the work. Ah, what millions in gold and silver and precious stones, to enrich us Spaniards, have traveled that long road all the way from the Pacific to the Atlantic! The portion between Cruces and Panama has been kept open the longest, for soon after the completion of the whole vessels began to ply back and forth between Cruces and Chagres, and the lower road was not so much used."

"You spoke of animals for our use to-morrow," suggested Mr. Adams.

"They shall be ready, senor. We at the Hacienda las Flores do not need to keep horses and mules for hire, but I have plenty for my friends."

"We wish to pay for their use, sir," spoke Mr. Adams, quickly. "We would not think of accepting them, otherwise. That is only fair. Isn't it so, Grigsby?"

"I say the same," agreed the Fremonter.

Don Antonio politely bowed.

"In that case," he answered, "I shall yield. The regular hire from Cruces to Panama is ten dollars each for the riding animals, and six dollars for each 100 pounds of freight. However, the animals ate at your disposal without price, if you permit me. With the packers and guide you can settle among yourselves."

Lighted to bed by his firefly lantern, that night Charley slept between sheets, under a mosquito-net canopy. He slept soundly, but he dreamed of being a pirate, and capturing a long treasure train of mules piled high with golden bars and shining pearls and rubies on the way from old Panama.