Gold Seekers of '49 - Edwin Sabin

A Trick—and its Consequences

That was so! Here was the very spot where the cayuca had been tethered to a pole. Charley remembered the pole, forked at the upper end. Only the forked tip was visible, for the river had risen amazingly from the rain, and was running over its bank. But the pole was sticking out—and no canoe was attached to it. Of canoe, and of Maria and Francisco, not a sign appeared.

Two thirds of the other canoes had gone; the others were rapidly leaving, as their occupants piled into them. The canoe of the long-nosed man and his companions already had started, for its place was vacant. Charley looked to see.

"It can't be that they've deserted!" exclaimed his father.

Mr. Grigsby shook his head, and smiled.

"Scarcely," he said. "See here. I've been waiting to show you."

He waded in knee deep, pulled up the pole and returned with it. A fragment of grass rope still hung to it. The rope had been cut!

"I think," said Mr. Grigsby, slowly, "that we've our three friends to thank for this. Looks to me as though somebody had cut the rope and set the canoe adrift, with our men in it."

"Then they're liable to be miles down the river!"

"Just so, baggage and all."

"We can't wait," asserted Mr. Adams. "If we wait we run a good chance of missing the steamer. I wouldn't have those three rascals get there first for a thousand dollars. How about another canoe? Have you tried?"

"Not yet. I didn't know whether you wanted to leave your baggage."

"Certainly I'll leave it. It can follow us. We can't stay here long and run the risk of cholera. If you'll look for a canoe I'll see if we can't hire passage with some of these other parties. Here, gentlemen!" he called, to a canoe about to push out, and not heavily loaded. "Got any room to spare?"

"Nary an inch, mister," responded one of the men. And away they went.

Again and again Mr. Adams tried, and he always got the same answer. Truly, this was a very selfish crowd, every man thinking only of himself and the goal ahead. They all acted as if the gold would be gone, did they not reach California at the very earliest possible minute. The fact is, Charley felt that way himself.

Back came Mr. Grigsby, hot and wet and disgusted.

"There's not a canoe to be had," he announced. "I can't get a boat for love or money. Either they're all in use, or the people claim they want to use them later. I expect we'll have to wait."

"Do you think our men will be back?"

"Yes, sir, as soon as they can. They seem honest. We can't walk, anyway."

"No, I should say not," responded Mr. Adams, surveying the jungle encompassing close. "We couldn't go a mile. The river's the only trail. Very well, we'll wait a while. I've waited before, and so have you."

"Many a time," and Mr. Grigsby composedly seated himself on the bank, his rifle between his knees.

"I'll see about some breakfast, then," volunteered Mr. Adams. And away he strode.

Charley had listened with dismay to the conversation. The last of the gold seekers' dug-outs had left in a hurry, and was disappearing up-stream. And here were he and his partners, stranded at the very beginning of their journey across to the Pacific! That had been a mean trick by the long-nosed man. Charley grew hot with anger.

"I should think Maria and Francisco would have waked up," he complained.

"They're awake by this time, and considerably surprised, too," answered Mr. Grigsby. "As like as not they were covered with their gutta-percha blankets, from the rain, and the boat drifted away without their feeling a thing."

The sun had risen. A few of the villagers squatted beside Mr. Grigsby and Charley and chatted in Spanish. They didn't appear concerned over the matter. They seemed to think that it was a joke. Presently Mr. Adams came striding back.

"Nothing new, is there?" he queried. "All right. Breakfast is ready, anyway. I don't think these people will object to having us as steady boarders, at two bits apiece."

The breakfast, in the darkened hut where they had slept, was very good: baked plantains (that looked when whole like a banana, but when served cooked looked and tasted like squash), boiled rice, butterless bread, and black coffee again. Charley enjoyed that breakfast—how could he help it when he was hungry and the food was something new? But his father rose twice to look at the river. Evidently time was of more importance than eating.

However, the river brought nothing; and when they all had finished breakfast and went out together to inspect the river again, it proved still vacant of the dug-out, and of Maria and Francisco.

"I vow!" chafed Mr. Adams. "This is too bad."

Mr. Grigsby seated himself on the bank.

"I don't wish any snake harm that doesn't deserve it," he said. "But if a big boa would swallow that long-nosed man and his two cronies I don't reckon I'd feel especially sorry, except it would be powerful hard on the snake!"

The village pursued its daily routine. Some of the women washed clothing in the shallows, although the water seemed dirtier than the garments. Men and women, both, cut plantains and bananas and breadfruit, and scratched gardens with crooked sticks. Children played about, and a few canoes pushed out, to go fishing. But nobody worked any too fast. The sun beat down hotly, the air was moist and heavy, monkeys and parrots screamed in the trees, and ever the Chagres flowed past, brown and swollen from the rain. Considerable driftwood floated down, and this was the only passing object.

After about two hours had dragged by, Mr. Grigsby suddenly uttered, in his calm manner, with a nod of his head: "There they come." He had keen eyes, had the scout and trapper who had served with Kit Carson and Colonel Fremont, for Charley, peering down stream, saw only a small speck appearing around the bend. His father wasn't quite convinced, and squinting earnestly he said: "I hope so, but it may be some other canoe, after all."

"Not a bit," assured Mr. Grigsby. "That's our craft, with our men in it paddling for dear life. I can see 'em plain; can't you?"

Along the opposite bank crept the canoe—yes, it held two paddlers—now it was quartering across, making for the village; its crew certainly looked like Maria and Francisco.

Hurrah! Maria and Francisco they were; and indignant they proved to be, as their three passengers proceeded to the water's edge to meet them. They were panting and wringing wet, for they had come in a great hurry. The villagers flocked curiously down, to listen and inspect.

"Quick!" called Francisco, in Spanish, as he held the canoe to the bank, "Get in, Americans." He held up the severed rope attached to the prow. "Those rascals cut us adrift, but never mind. We'll hurry."

"We were almost down to Chagres again when we woke up," called Maria, to friends ashore. "We have been paddling ever since."

"Get aboard," bade Mr. Adams. "All right," he added, to the boatmen, as Mr. Grigsby followed him and Charley tumbled into the bows. Francisco gave a vigorous shove, out shot the canoe into the current; and instantly Maria and Francisco were digging again with their paddles.

"We've lost about six hours," remarked Charley's father. "And it's too late for even Grigsby's boa constrictor to help us out."

Maria seemed to have understood, for he grunted, encouragingly: "Go ahead! Ever'body go ahead!" And tacked on a sentence in Spanish.

"Maria says they'll paddle all night," translated Charley's father, for Charley. "That will help, but I expect a lot of other fellows will do the same."

"Well, we can do the best we're able," spoke Mr. Grigsby. "I reckon we'll get thar. The river's falling. That'll help."

By the looks of the water-line on the banks, this was so. Maria and Francisco made good progress, as they cunningly took advantage of every eddy. Speedily the village of Gatun disappeared in the heavy foliage behind, and once more the dug-out was afloat in the tropical wilderness.

The river was extremely crooked, and in spots was swift; and Maria and Francisco worked like Trojans to gain a few miles. (Of course there was no Gatun Lake here yet. The Chagres had not been dammed for any Panama Canal, but flowed in a course between high green hills bordered with lagoons.)

About noon another little hut village appeared in a clearing on the right bank. This was Dos Hermanos (Two Brothers), where people who left Gatun early in the morning usually stopped for breakfast, and their boatmen stopped for gossip. But Maria only shook his head at sight of it, and he and Francisco paused in their paddling not an instant. So Dos Hermanos faded from view, behind.

How they worked, those two boatmen—the muchos caballeros (much gentlemen) as they claimed to be! And certainly white boatmen never could have served more faithfully. Maria no longer sang his funny "Yankee Doodle Doo." He and Francisco saved their breath, while the perspiration rolled from them in streams. All day they paddled, pausing only twice for a bano, or bath. Other villages were passed, and one or two ranches; and in due time the sun set and dusk flowed down from the densely green hills.

With one accord Maria and Francisco swung the canoe in to the nearest bank, and tethered it to a leaning tree. Maria spoke in Spanish, and shrugging his shoulders, wearily stretched.

"Rest for two hours, and eat, is it?" quoth Mr. Grigsby, likewise stretching, and then standing up. "All right. These boys have earned it."

They certainly had. Still none of the gold seekers' flotilla ahead had been sighted, but assuredly some of the lead had been cut down. As for the long-nosed man's canoe, its four paddlers probably had kept it in the fore, and there was not much chance of overtaking it. Charley was rather glad. Maria and Francisco seemed to be so angry that there was no telling what they might not do to the men who had cut them adrift. And his father and Mr. Grigsby were to be reckoned with, too!

The forest on either side darkened rapidly. New birds and animals issued, for the night, and filled the jungle with strange, new cries. The river also was alive with splashes, from fish and reptile and beast unseen. But after they all had eaten supper of bananas and cold pork and cold plantains, washed down with cocoanut milk, Maria and Francisco laid themselves out in the boat, and slept. Their three passengers nodded and waited.

In two hours precisely the faithful boatmen awakened. Francisco lighted a pitchy torch and stuck it upright in the bows. Then the boat was shoved out, he and Maria resumed their paddles, and on they all went, up the river again.

This was a fascinating voyage. Great birds and beetles and bats swooped for the torch, and fled; fish leaped before the prow; and from the jungle on right and left harsh voices clamored in alarm. Charley, perched in the bows by the torch, which flared almost in his face, peered and listened. The ruddy light cut a little circle on the water, and shone on the dark, glistening forms of the two boatmen, and on the staring faces of Mr. Grigsby and Mr. Adams, sitting amidships.

The night seemed to be growing darker. Over the forest, on the right before, lightning was glimmering, and there was the low growl of thunder.

"Going to get wet," announced Mr. Grigsby. "It rains at least once every twenty-four hours, at this season."

Maria and Francisco exchanged a few sentences in Spanish and doubled their efforts. The dug-out surged along, but even when it was close to a bank the trees could scarcely be seen in the blackness.

"Well, Charley," called his father, "if we don't reach Pena Blanca (that was the next village, and the name meant White Rock) in time we are liable to get wet."

"Hark!" bade Mr. Grigsby. "Somebody's shouting."

Maria and Francisco had heard, also, for they rested on their paddles a moment, to listen. Again came the new sound—a shrill, prolonged cry wafting across the velvety river. Francisco looked back inquiringly at the two men amidships.

"Go over," said Mr. Adams, with motion of hand. "Somebody's hailing us."

Maria whooped loudly, and was answered. The dug-out turned, and slanted across the current.

Not a thing could be seen. The torch flared low, for a chill, damp breeze began to blow, in fitful fashion, heralding the storm. Maria whooped at intervals, and back came the cry in reply.

"They sound right ahead," spoke Mr. Grigsby. "Easy, boys."

"I see them! I see them!" exclaimed Charley. A lightning flash more vivid than any of the glimmers preceding had lighted the river with dazzling white; and peering intently he had seen a boat, with dark figures in it, limned not one hundred feet before. "They're straight in front—people in a boat."

"Hello!" now was wafted the shout, in English. "This way."

Maria and Francisco paddled slowly, awaiting another lightning flash. It came, disclosing the other boat only a few canoe lengths away. Maria and Francisco paddled cautiously; the lightning flashes were frequent, as if the storm was about to break, and the two boats could see one another constantly.

"What's the matter here?" demanded Mr. Adams, as Maria and Francisco held the dug-out a paddle's distance from the stranger boat. By the flare of the dying torch, and the flashes of the lightning, this was revealed as a native canoe, with two boatmen and two passengers.

"Be careful," warned a white man's voice. "We're hung up here on a snag, and need help. We've been here five hours, and not a boat would stop to lend a hand. If you've the hearts of men you'll stand by and give us a lift. Our boatmen are worn out, and one of us is sick as a dog."

"Well, sir, you can depend on us," assured Mr. Adams. "We're probably in the biggest hurry of all, but we're not brutes. Let's see what's to be done." He spoke to Maria in Spanish, and Maria and Francisco began to chatter with the other boatmen.

"We've sprung a leak, too," said the spokesman in the wrecked canoe. "It keeps two of us bailing. I won't leave my partner. He's too sick to swim. Cholera, I might as well tell you. Can you take us aboard?"

"We'll try," replied Mr. Adams. "Much baggage?"

"We've thrown the baggage over, or else we wouldn't be on top. All we ask is to get to Pena Blanca or some nearer place if there is any; and we'll pay your price."

"There's no price, sir," said Mr. Adams, firmly. "We can take them in, can't we, Grigsby?"

"You bet," responded Mr. Grigsby. "They can count on us some way or other. I'd not desert friend or stranger in distress for all the gold in California."

"Thanks later, then," spoke the other, shortly. "But our torch is out, there's a foot of water in the bottom, and if that storm breaks on us we'll be swamped. Fetch your boat alongside, will you?"

His tone was the tone of authority, as if he had been accustomed to command. Mr. Adams delivered a sentence to Maria; and the dug-out was carefully worked in to the wrecked boat. Now edge to edge they floated. The other boat was hard and fast on a sunken tree, and a sharp branch had jabbed clear through the bottom.

"My partner first," bade the man. "We'll have to lift him. He's far gone."

While the boatmen held the two crafts together by the gunwales, the helpless form, swathed in a blanket, was passed across and propped beside Maria in the stern. Then in stepped a short, stout, red-faced man, and the two boatmen nimbly followed, with their paddles.

The dug-out was weighted almost to the gunwale by the new load, and Charley caught his breath, in dismay. But she ceased sinking, and still floated.

"Cast off," bade the short man, brusquely. "Thank God," he breathed, wiping his brow. "I guess we'll make it now, storm or no storm. My boys will help paddle."

With an exclamation all together Maria and Francisco and the two new boatmen dipped their paddles, as the two boats parted; and the dug-out leaped ahead.

"My name is Captain Crosby. I'm a sailor, from Boston," the stranger introduced himself.

Mr. Adams explained who they were. Captain Crosby continued:

"I've followed the sea all my life, since I was a small boy, and this is one of the narrowest escapes I've ever had, afloat or ashore. If it hadn't been for you, my mate and I would have been drowned, or would have died in the jungle. As for those cowardly whelps who passed us by—faugh! Each one left us to the boat behind. Fiji Islanders would have had more heart than that. It was the cholera that scared 'em."

"I'm afraid your partner's very sick," commented Mr. Adams. And indeed, lying limp and unconscious, wrapped in the blanket, his features pinched and white in the glare of lightning and flare of torch, the partner certainly looked to Charley to be a very sick man.

"Yes, sir. He'll not recover. I've seen cholera before. But I'll stay with him to the last, and then I'll bury him. Seems to me you're late on the up-river trip, aren't you?"

"We are. But evidently there was a purpose in it," responded Mr. Adams. "Things work out for the best, in this world."

"You'll not lose by it, sir," asserted Captain Crosby. "Wait and see. You'll not lose by it. I've something up my sleeve. But now the main thing to be done is to land us and be rid of us."

That may have been so; in fact, it behooved them all to land, if the approaching storm's bite was as bad as its bark. The torch flickered and went out; but the lightning was light enough, illuminating river and wooded shores with blinding violet blazes. The bellow of the thunder was terrific—and while the four boatmen heaved with their paddles and encouraged each other with shrill cries, in a solid line down swept the first sheet of rain.

In an instant Charley was drenched to the skin. So were the other passengers, and the stinging drops lashed the bare bodies of the paddlers. The water swiftly gathered in the boat, so that Mr. Grigsby and the captain began to bail with gourds kept handy for the purpose. But, hurrah! There, on the near shore ahead, was another little village, Pena Blanca, its low huts showing dimly through the spume of the storm. Straight for it made the canoe—hit the sloping bank, and stuck while out stumbled the passengers, the captain shouldering his partner.

Francisco ran ahead, to show the way; and calling, dived in through the doorway of a hut larger than its neighbors. Charley followed, and in they all scurried. The other boatmen had stayed behind to spread rubber blankets over the baggage.