At Flying Creek
H. Mortimer Batten
A Story of Adventure in Alaskan Gold Fields
THEY had lived for nine months in threeman loneliness, prospecting the headwaters of the Aspen and its tributaries.
There was no question that gold was there—not a mere surface smattering of it, but gold in great quantities. There was scarcely a creek that did not bear traces of it, here a few yellow grains mixed with the sand, there a delicate gilding of the pebbles, only visible to the expert eye. The whole country bore evidence of it, yet for nine long months they had searched the desolation without striking so much as a pay streak.
Terry was optimistic. He stood steadfast in the faith that some day a second Dawson City would spring up within a mile of their central cabin, that clanging street cars would occupy the river banks, and imposing hotels overlook its waters. He believed that he and his two partners would be the founders of that city—that the day could not be far hence when a show sufficient to stagger the world would be revealed to their expectant gaze.
Featherstone did not share Terry’s optimism. He was sick of the loneliness, sick of the silence, and sick of the whole dingdong abandonment of the place. So far the trip hadn’t paid dog meat, and Featherstone was lame anyway. If it hadn’t been for Terry’s enthusiasm and untiring spirit he would have hiked out for Holy Cross and home long ago.
Exactly what Cerrita thought about it all neither of his partners knew. They had brought him along as packman and dog musher, and wished a thousand times since that they had left him at home. Not that Cerrita was inefficient—far from it.
He was a good dog driver, and a hard traveler, but his habitual taciturnity had got on their nerves.
It was the usual story of three-man loneliness. The months of confinement had bound two of the three together with a bond stronger than the bonds of brotherhood. The very sincerity of their friendship led to the isolation of the third, nor did they trouble to conceal their feelings when the confinement became too much for them, when their overstrained nerves were compelled to give utterance to the oppression that was at their souls. Cerrita was the hired man, and anyway he was paid to be cursed. He bore it sullenly and without retort. Grumbling was not his way when the loneliness gripped him and weighed him down. He could have endured it and survived it had he been alone, but with these “two whimpering fools” united against him it awoke the fierce obstinacy of his nature.
A dozen times a day he purposely annoyed them and endured their curses in silence. Vicious words broke no bones and Cerrita was a man of action. Sooner or later his chance would come of quenching the sullen hatred and jealousy he bore towards his partners and their friendship for one another; sooner or later he would deal with them, and in the meantime their curses only went to feed the fire which the silence and gloom and solitude had kindled within him.
Cerrita, too, would have thrown up the
x U sponge ere things reached this
l IlC pass had it not been for a bad attack of gold fever. Each sign and trace of the precious yellow metal that came before his eyes set the blood tingling in his veins, sent strange little shudders down his spine, and brought a numbness to his finger tips. He could endure all in silence so long as he knew the gold was there, but if he and his partners located it, then—
It was on account of Featherstone’s lameness that Terry and Cerrita were working the creeks together. They had left Featherstone at home to mind the dogs and keep the wolverines out of the cabin while they perfected the chart of Flying Creek. It was a ten-days’ job. In ten days they would return, having staked their claim or — more probably — have crossed the creek from their blueprint map as they had crossed the many already prospected.
Strange that they should at last strike the lode within three thousand yards of the shanty they had occupied since the search began! Here a tiny “pup,” unmarked on the surveyor’s map, joined the Flying Creek with a tinkle of laughing waters that seemed a mockery to the silence. A square of pale sunshine fell through the overhanging timber where the two streams met. Above that, to left and right, the cedar trees, their roots undermined, overhung the waterways, with here and there a gaunt-limbed spruce tree towering gloomily through the chaos.
Terry came to a halt upon the white rock dome that rose between the two creeks, his eyes upon something that lay at his feet and rose upwards over the
crest. Just what that something was he could not make out. A numbness had come over his mind, a sense that something stupendous had happened. He was aware of the soft sunshine—a draught of life amidst the eternal gloom of the bush. He was aware of the laughter of the brook, and vaguely it brought to his mind the laughter of children—the laughter of crowded streets and gleaming pavements in the lamplight. He was aware of a dull yellow mass at his feet, of yellow, tortuous arms reaching upwards across the dome, seeming to embrace it in their crooked hold, like the tentacles of an octopus. It resembled, indeed, the fossil of some hideous monster, embedded for countless ages in the great dome of dull grey quartz.
For fully two minutes Terry stood, one ragged moccasin on the seam, his eyes taking in the various leads and weighing up their proportions. Then, without enthusiasm, without haste, he motioned Cerrita to cross the creek.
Cerrita came slowly and with a ponderousness born of long expectancy. He joined Terry on the dome, and in silence each nodded to the other.
“Gold?” suggested Cerrita, presently.
“Gold,” Terry agreed. He took from his vest pocket a stump of a briar pipe, jammed down the ashes in the bowl, and lit it. Then glancing down the creek in the direction of their central cabin and his partner he added: “You’d best get some good stakes cut while I get ready with the tape. It will be dark in less than an hour, and I want to get home.”
They went to work with the mechanical regularity of men accustomed to working together. Terry stepped out a base, checked himself with the tape, and told Cerrita where to fix the first corner post. “It couldn’t have been better situated,” he observed, regarding the find which would have brought all Dawson City, two hundred miles distant, on a mad stampede. “There’s no mistaking the place where the pup joins the creek. Even the survey map couldn’t mislead one
Darkness had long since fallen when the last post was fixed. They would come again to-morrow and mark out a second claim. They lit their fire on the crest of the dome, boiled some coffee, and when they kicked the fire away little teats of gold lay glowing among the ashes. Cerrita picked them up and tied them in his bandanna, then they set out for home.
A single bear track which they had previously used led across the heights, and it was on this track that the thing happened. At one point the track led to the edge of a narrow canyon and, across this canyon, stained with muddy paw marks and worn by the passage of heavy claws, lay the trunk of a dead cottonwood. A hundred feet below moved the black waters of the creek, the surface rendered visible by the phosphorescent specks of foam that wound their course across it.
Cerrita led the way, balancing himself cautiously as he crossed the black void where a false step meant destruction. It was no easy matter balancing one’s self when one carried a fifty-pound pack
shoulder high, for the tree was shorn of branches save for one branch that stood vertically from the trunk on the other side. When he had landed he pronounced it O.K., and Terry began to follow.
Cerrita’s hand was on the single branch that grew vertically from the trunk at the extremity by which he had landed and, as Terry began to cross, he pulled the branch downwards as a man pulls a timber jack or a railway bar. The trunk turned under the leverage, turned beneath Terry’s moccasined feet, and precipitated him into space. He clutched wildly at the trunk as his foothold failed, cursing Cerrita as he did so. Somehow his pack came off and fell downwards into the blackness with him. Cerrita stood and listened for a moment or so. He heard the ghostly echoes fill the gulch below—a sodden thud and the lap-lap of water—then he went on alone.
An hour later Cerrita opened the door of the shanty and let himself in. Featherstone looked up at him expectantly, then leapt to his feet.
“Where’s Terry?” he cried, anx’ously.
Cerrita strolled to his bunk and began to drag off his sodden moccasins. Featherstone watched him with the eyes of a panther.
“Curse you, man, can’t you speak?” cried the latter. “Where’s my partner?”
Featherstone had cleared the floor at a leap in spite of his lameness, and his right hand now clutched Cerrita’s collar. Cerrita shook himself free and strode to the stove. Then his black eyes met those of his companion with the straightest look they had ever given him.
“Terry’s dead,” Cerrita answered; and waited to see the effect of his words. He stroked his glossy black beard reflectively, then, after a pause, pursued: “Yes,
Terry’s dead, so you’ll have to make out with me now. I know that will get on your nerves, but you got on mine long ago for that matter. I fancy we’d best get out.”
Featherstone’s eyes were wide open, his hands clutched at the lapels of his tunic. “I don’t follow you, partner,” he said simply.
It was not a pleasant laugh that broke the stillness of the cabin. It came from between two rows of square strong teeth, shining pearl-white from the coarse hair of the man’s face.
“No, but you will when I tell you,” Cerrita answered unemotionally. “Terry was always a fool when it came to crossing creeks. He’d take risks that no sane man would take. I warned him once about it but he laughed at me. After that I let him go his own way. He did it once too often—this morning. Tried to wade the central race and got swilled off his pins.
I went in after him, but couldn’t reach him without risking my life. Considering all that he and you have been to me this last six months, I don’t see that I was called upon to do that.”
Featherstone’s gaze was fixed upon the face of his opponent but Cerrita never flinched. After some moments Featherstone said, “Cerrita you’re lying. I don’t believe your explanation.”
Cerrita shrugged his shoulders with his
usual indifference and resignation. The comfortable warmth of the stove seemed to absorb his complete attention.
For one thing,” Featherstone pursued, “your matches aren’t wet. You just struck one to look under the bunk for your sock and you took it from your vest pocket. If you’d been in the water during the last forty hours you’d carry your matches in your hair.”
Cerrita made no immediate answer, but a frost-bite scar across his forehead turned an ashen grey. For an instant his eyes met those of his companion and in that glance was all the mad venom which had spurred him to accomplish, callously and calmly, an act which a year ago he would have shrunk from with a child’s timidity.
“Whether you believe it is not of much consequence,” he returned. “The fact remains that Terry is dead. I may choose to keep the details to myself till later on.”
“Because I’m the better man, because I’m riding the high horse!” Again that fiery gleam came into Cerrita’s eyes. “Yes, for six months I’ve been kicked and cursed by you and your partner,” he pursued, “and while there were two of you I had to shut up. At first I made allowances. You were young and unused to the bush. I forgave you. But as time went on it got beyond forgiveness. Didn’t I, too, feel the loneliness, the silence! It tore at my very heart strings, till my mind was aflame with misery. You and Terry had each other—I had no one. Even that I could have endured had you left me alone. But in addition to the loneliness I had you—poor whimpering fool—and your partner!”
Cerrita strode forward, clutched Featherstone by the chest and shook him as a terrier shakes a rat. “Now I have only you,” he pursued savagely. “Now I can bully you as you have bullied me. Your partner—”
But the sentence was cut short by an apparition of gleaming fangs and bristling mane that rose from beneath Featherstone’s bunk. It was Cracker, the leading sled dog. It flung itself at Cerrita’s throat but, falling short, gripped the man by the wrists as his hands held Featherstone’s tunic. Cerrita flung the brute aside with an oath, kicking it viciously.
“Even the sled dogs,” he said, “even the dogs have picked up your peevish hatred of me, and God knows I’ve been good enough to them! How many nights have I stopped behind to feed them when you and Terry were so done you could only creep into your blankets? If it weren’t for me they would have starved.”
Cerrita threw open the door and drove the dog out. When he returned Featherstone was seated by the stove, his head between his hands. Cerrita got himself a caribou steak, fried it, and retired to his bunk. After a while Featherstone extinguished the light, and he too retired.
But neither of them were to sleep, had sleep been within their power. No sooner had the sounds of movement within the cabin ceased than Cracker, the sled dog, began to howl. He howled at first in a
low, dismal strain, as though singing a serenade to the moon; but slowly the brute worked himself up, howling as though all the sorrows of a lifetime had occurred to him. He poured forth a veritable cascade of misery, filling the whole empty forest with multitudinous ghost voices. It is only when a dog’s master lies dead or dying that he howls thus.
The two men heard and understood but the effects it had upon each of them were vastly different. Featherstone hid his head beneath the blankets and groaned. Cerrita sat up and cursed savagely. After a while he finally rose from his bunk and lit the candle. There was a mad gléam in his eyes and his partner saw that his hands were trembling. He went across to the packs and drew from one of them a heavy black revolver.
“What you going to do with that?” enquired Featherstone.
“Going to shoot that cursed dog!” Cerrita answered promptly. He moved towards the door but Featherstone rose and barred his way.
“Don’t be a fool, man,” the latter advised. “Cracker is the best dog we possess and we’ll want him to get out of this infernal forest.”
But Cerrita thrust him aside with a force that sent him crashing under the bunk. He threw open the door and went out into the moonlight. The revolver in his hand flashed brightly as he sought the shadows and he was just in time to catch a fleeting glimpse of a pale grey form at the edge of the clearing.
“No fool-dog, that C r a c k e r,” he muttered hoarsely. “Guess he knows what he’s up against better than I do.”
AS Terry felt the log turn beneath his feet he knew that Cerrita had found the opportunity for which he had waited in silence. And, even as he fell, Terry saw just what had happened; he saw the dark outline of Cerrita amidst the shadows, saw that the man’s two hands still clutched the solitary branch growing vertically from the trunk. Then he went down into the blackness of the gulch.
Terry fell a matter of thirty feet ere a slanting shelf caught him and precipitated him twenty feet further into the accumulated slush that lay between the shelf and the naked wall of the cliff. His pack rebounded and shot downwards into space and darkness, settling finally at the bottom of the pool sixty feet below.
Had Cerrita looked down into the gulch he would have seen and heard nothing, for Terry lay motionless under the ledge, his face aspiring heavenwards. He was not unconscious, though he knew himself to be helplessly maimed. For fully an hour he never moved, then with an effort he
crept to the edge of the shelf to reconnoitre his position.
He saw that the ?^helf wound its course downwards, with many breaks, to the face of the creek, but there was scarcely enough foothold for a goat. Above him he could not see, though it seemed to him that the shelf became wider as it wound upwards. He examined the strata of the cliff opposite, and saw by its formation that in all probability this was the case. Anyway, it was not of much consequence as his maimed limbs refused to carry him further than the flat ledge on which he lay.
Terry realized in a dazed fashion that his fate was sealed. He lay still and pondered the situation, listening to the faint drip-drip of water that filled the whole gulch with a vast volume of sound. Once he sat up with a cry of fear, startled himself into consciousness, then lapsed once more into the stupor which took no count of time.
When next he roused himself it was a
faint sound that had called him back from oblivion—not the sound of his own voice this time, but a sharp “yap-yap” that left him for a moment bewildered. He looked upwards and beheld a moving shadow silhouetted against the sky on the crown of the cliff opposite. As he moved the shadow became motionless. It peered down into the gulch—two pointed ears cocked enquiringly, two points of light that seemed to ponder the situation with lingering thoughtfulness.
“Wolf!” thought Terry. “The brutes ain’t taken long in finding me, but I guess they won’t get me here.”
Again the sharp yap-yap, followed by an expectant whine. The dark shadow above moved aside, trotted across the fallen tree that spanned the gulch, then losing sight of the man trotted back again—uttering that low, expectant whine all the time.
Terry realized now that the brute above him was no wolf but a sled dog. It was
Cracker! The sight of the brute put new life into his veins—raised him from the stupor from which he might otherwise never have wakened. Again he crept to the edge of the shelf, calling the dog by name. At the sound of his voice Cracker became frantic, and even pondered suicide by leaping from the opposite cliff into the blackness of the gulch.
At length the dog found a shelf and began to descend, but in his keenness to keep the man in sight he descended by the opposite cliff. Not till he was level with Terry did he realize his mistake, and then with a whine he began to scramble back, intent on making a fresh start.
The right way down must have been a long and tedious one, for ere the dog reached him Terry had lapsed again into oblivion. He was roused by a whimper of joy, by a wet muzzle thrust into his face, by a great, sprawling mass of doghood floundering over his bruised and stiffened , limbs. For a time he held the dog to him, hugging it gratefully, then his thoughts turned to the more serious issue of the moment. He took from his tunic the rough map he had drawn showing the whereabouts of their claim, and in the darkness he wrote beneath it: “Enough gold here to start another Klondike rush. If you get this bring a rope and come and look for me. Beware of Cerrita. He meant doing away with me, and he’ll do away with you if you don’t look out.” After that he described his exact whereabouts so that Featherstone could make no mistake.
That night Terry kept the dog by him for warmth, but when the first pale sunshine of the short northland day — autumn was near — filtered into the gulch he took off his bandanna, secured the map inside it, and tied the cloth round Cracker’s neck. Then he told the dog to go home.
Three times Cracker started out along the shelf, wistful-eyed and dejected, and three times he came back penitently to his master. Terry hardened his heart and cursed, finally stoning the dog away from him and following up the fusilade with savage imprecations. This time Cracker went, and silence settled again upon the
Ere dawn broke that morning Cerrita got up and prepared his pack. He told Featherstone that he was about to complete the prospect of the creek, after which they would hit out for home. In reality he was intent on completing the survey of the claim which in due course he intended to register in his own name.
“You best get that lameness better,” Cerrita told Featherstone as he went out. “I ain’t going to hang about here much longer, and if you ain’t fit for the trail
Continued on Page 65.
Continued, from Page 41.
when the time comes I guess you’ll have to stop on alone.”
Featherstone did not underestimate the significance of this threat for he knew what the result would be if his partner deserted him. Without Cerrita as pilot he could not hope to cross the great white barrier where eternal winter reigned between them and the southern world. Thus he was at the mercy of his partner.
Scarcely had Cerrita left the hut behind him when on the plateau below he saw something moving in the direction of the hut. That something was a wolf or a dog and, as it loped steadily on, Cerrita caught sight of a crimson cloth tied about its neck. He glanced behind him towards the hut—saw to his satisfaction that it was hidden from view by a row of wind-scragged larches. He saw too that he was in the direct path the dog would take, so he backed into the shadows to await the brute’s approach.
With lolling tongue and half-closed eyes Cracker trotted up the trail in the morning sunshine but, within fifty yards of the spot where Cerrita stood, the dog suddenly stopped and sniffed the breeze suspiciously. Whether it was some strange instinct or whether it was really intelligence that warned him to avoid Cerrita one cannot say but, be that as it may, the brute vanished into the bush and made a détour of the spot where the man stood waiting. Five minutes later Cerrita caught a glimpse of it fleeing like the wind on the pathway above towards the cabin.
A wolfish gleam came into Cerrita’s eyes as cautiously he retraced his steps. He realized that some sort of a crisis had come and that, to save his plans, he must stop at nothing. From a clump of thick underbrush near he saw Featherstone open the door of the shanty in response to the impatient whine that came from without. He saw the man untie the bandanna —it was Terry’s bandanna!—from the dog’s neck, and draw the sheet of paper from within it. Then Featherstone came cautiously down the trail, peering to left and right, and actually passed within a few feet of him. Evidently convincing himself that Cerrita was gone he turned back and went into the hut.
A minute or two later Featherstone came out with two coils of rope upon his shoulder. He had on his climbing shoes, and he trod carefully so as to leave no tracks. He headed out in the direction of the runway along which Cerrita himself had come last night.
Cerrita guessed now what was in the wind and silently he followed.
At the crest of the canyon, where the fallen tree lay across it, Featherstone peered down into the gloom and called to his partner. Dim and indistinct among the echoes the answer came. Cerrita could not hear what passed between them. He
kept at a safe distance, for he had not failed to notice the uneasiness of Cracker still following at Feather stone’s heels. It was quite possible that the dog might give the show away.
But from his hiding place Cerrita saw Featherstone make his two ropes secure to the trunk of a larch at the edge of the gulch—one of the ropes for his own use, and the second to haul up Terry on his return. He waited till Featherstone had boldly stepped over the edge, and was cautiously groping his way down into the black void where Terry lay, then rose to his feet and hurried towards the place where the ropes were secured.
Next moment Featherstone, hanging giddily over space, caught sight of Cerrita as he prepared to cross the gulch by the fallen tree and, as their eyes met, Featherstone saw that his fate was sealed —that the man with whom he had to deal was mad, temporarily mad! There was no time to draw back to safety. In five seconds Cerrita would be upon him, desperately intent on sending him to his
Next moment the madman was upon the tree—striding across it at reckless speed. Featherstone could see him silhouetted against the sky, when suddenly between the man and the opposite edge of the cliff appeared a sinister vision of shining fangs and bristling mane.
Cerrita paused, glared at the dog that barred his way with wide open eyes, and seemed for a moment to ponder the situation. Then wildly, recklessly, he hacked at the white fangs with his moccasined foot, and made a desperate leap for safety.
But the dog barred the way and exactly what took place Featherstone could not tell. He saw the man and the sled dog close together at the extreme edge of the cliff, the man on his knees, clutching wildly at the coarse hair around the dog’s neck. For one awful moment they seemed to hang there, then a dark shape swung outwards and downwards, slipped silently through the flood of moonlight that fell into the gorge, and disappeared into the blackness beyond.
For some seconds there was silence, then again the whole ravine was filled with ghostly echoes, like the voices of a thousand souls in torment. On the brink above, peering savagely down into the blackness, stood a panting sled-dog—
Search Sea for Treasure
Two whaling vessels have been equipped at San Francisco for deep-sea salvage work and probably will spend some months in the South Pacific searching for a treasure ship which has been beneath the waves for nearly a half century. The boats are owned by rival companies, both of which are sending out expeditions in the hope of recovering what is reputed to be a $12,000,000 cargo that was lost in 1866 when the steamer “General Grant” foundered on a coral reef somewhere in southern waters.