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   Chapter 15 O'BRIEN'S CANS OF GOLD

Connie Morgan in Alaska By James B. Hendryx Characters: 13559

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

When Connie Morgan and Waseche Bill awoke, the morning after their midnight escape from the village of the strange Indians, they found O'Brien busily engaged in the preparation of breakfast.

The tunnel of the ancient mine, that had been the abode of Carlson and Pete Mateese, was merely a rude entry which followed the slant of an outcropping mass of native copper. The entry was approximately five feet high and six feet wide, and led obliquely into the face of a rock-cliff for a distance of a hundred feet where it widened into a chamber, or room, perhaps twenty feet in diameter and seven or eight feet in height. Three walls of the room were formed by the copper ore which showed plainly the marks of the primitive tools of the forgotten miners. The fourth wall was of solid rock-the wall of the fissure that contained the vein of ore. At the angle formed by the roof and the rock wall, a wide crack, or cleavage cleft, slanted sharply upward and outward to a point on the face of the rock-cliff high above the mouth of the tunnel, and thus formed a natural chimney for the rude fireplace that had been built directly beneath it.

The odour of boiling coffee was in the air and by the fireplace squatted O'Brien, prodding tentatively at the caribou steaks that sizzled noisily in the long-handled frying pan. Upon a flat stone that had evidently served for a table, an ancient lamp which consisted of a rudely hammered copper pan containing blubber grease and a bit of moss wicking, flared its smoky illumination.

"Good marnin' to yez," greeted the Irishman, as the two partners slipped from their sleeping bags and drew up close to the fire. "Sure, bhreakfasht'll be riddy in wan minit-an' a good job ut is, to be settin' wanst mor-re amongst Christians, an' aytin' whoite man's grub, inshtead av suckin' a shtrip av blubber, along av th' flat-faced Injuns, yondher."

Connie laughed:

"Yes, but you nearly spilled the beans when you tumbled off the sled."

"Ahroo! Dar-rlint! Ut's a gr-rand lad ye ar-re! Ye shud av seen um!" he cried, turning to Waseche Bill. "Oi wanted to git jist th' wan swoipe f'r um to remimber me by, but Oi mished um fair an' square, an' over Oi wint loike a frog off a log in a bog. An' jist phwin Annunduk wuz about to presint his soide av th' case wid a bit av a club th' heft av a pick handle, crack! goes th' b'y's whiplash fair in th' face av um, an' phwin th' other goes to jump on me back, Whirra! They's a roar loike th' Zoo tur-rned loose f'r recess, an' th' wolf-dog's a-top av um, fang an' claw! Ye shud av seen ut! 'Twuz a gr-rand soight!"

Waseche smiled proudly as he listened to the Irishman's account of the accident on the trail.

"Yo' say, they won't follow us in heah?" he asked.

"Niver a wan av thim. They think this valley is th' counthry av th' evil spirits. We're safe now-an' hooray, f'r Flor-ridy, an' th' land av sunshine!"

"We-all ain't out of the woods yet. I'm sho' glad to be shet of them Injuns, though. How many times did yo' say they'd brung yo' back?"

"Twinty-wan toimes. But, Oi hadn't no dogs-an' thim two tomatty cans is heavy!"

"Where are the cans?" asked Connie, who had only half believed the Irishman's tale of gold.

"Set by now an' ate, an' Oi'll show ye thim-the two av moine, an' th' twilve av Car-rlson's an' Pete Mateese's."

The meal over, O'Brien loosened a cleverly concealed wedge that held in place a stone which served as a door to a small compartment, about eighteen inches square and three feet deep, that had been chiselled into the copper on a level with the floor.

"'Tis th' safe," he grinned. "Foire proof, an' bhurglar proof, too, av ye don't know th' combynation, fer wid th' little wedge in place, th' more ye pryze on th' rock th' toighter ut shticks."

Pushing the stone aside, the man reached into the interior and, one at a time, removed fourteen tin cans, which he carefully deposited upon the floor. Over the top of each, serving as a cover, and concealing the contents from view, was bound a piece of caribou skin, smoke-dried, with the hair on.

Connie reached for a can, but to his surprise it remained motionless as if nailed to the floor. It seemed incredible to the boy that such great weight could be encompassed within so small a space, and it was only at the expense of considerable effort that he succeeded in raising it to his lap. Cutting the thongs, he removed the cover and there, showing yellow and dull in the guttering flare of the blubber lamp, was gold! O'Brien spread an empty pack-sack and the boy poured the contents of the can upon it, and with his fingers levelled the golden pyramid. Before him lay nuggets, flat, dark flakes of "float," and bright yellow grains of "dust"-hand-shovelled, and hand-sluiced from the hot, wet sands of the Ignatook. Waseche Bill stared speechless at the row of skin-covered cans, at the pile of yellow metal, and back to the row of cans. For years this man had toiled and mucked among the placers of the gold fields, had sunk deep shafts, and shallow; had tunnelled, and drifted, and sloshed about in ice-cold muddy creek beds, but in all the years of toil and hardship and peril, he had never gazed upon a sight like this. Even Ten Bow, with its rich drift sands, was a barren desert in comparison with this El Dorado of the frozen waste.

"Nine thousan' dollahs a can-mebbe ten," he estimated, in an awed voice. "No wondeh Carlson came back!" He turned to O'Brien:

"How deep was his shafts?"

"Shafts!" exclaimed the Irishman, "sure, they ain't no shafts! Ye dam off a puddle av wather phwer uts shallow an' throw in a chunk av oice to cool ut, an' thin ye wade in an' shovel ut into ye're sluices."

"An' wateh the yeah around!" cried Waseche.

"Aye, an' no dumps to wor-rk out in th' shpring-ye clane up as ye go. Wan shovel is good f'r a can, or a can an' a half a month."

The idea of a man measuring his dust by the forty-pound can, instead of by the ounce, was new, and Waseche Bill laughed-a short, nervous laugh of excitement.

"Come on! Shove them cans back in the hole an' le's go stake ouh claims. Yo' done stoke yo'n, ain't yo', O'Brien?"

"Oi've shtaked nawthin'! Oi jist scooped ut out here an' there, phwere their claims wasn't. Oi want none av this counthry! Oi've had enough av ut as ut is! Oi won't shtay wan minit longer thin Oi've got to-not av Oi c'n shovel out pure gold be th' scoopful! Oi want to be war-rm wanst more, an' live loike a civiloized Christian shud live, wid a pig an' a cow, an' a bit av a gar-rden.

"Ye'll not be thinkin' av shtayin' here?" he asked anxiously.

"No, O'Brien," answered Waseche, "not this trip. But we ah goin' to stake ouh claims an' then, lateh, why me an' th' kid heah-we ah comin' back!"

"Come ba

ck av ye want to," said O'Brien with a shrug. "But luk out ye don't come back wanst too often. Phwere's Car-rlson, an' Pete Mateese? Thim's min that come back! An' wait till ye see th' skulls an' the bones along th' gravel at th' edge av th' wather-thim wuz min, too, wanst-they come back. An' luk at me! Four av us come in be way av Peel River-an' three av us is dead-an' many's th' toime Oi've wisht Oi wuz wan av thim." O'Brien replaced the stone, and the three turned their attention to their surroundings. One side of the room was piled to the ceiling with the caribou venison and fish of which O'Brien had spoken. They also found a sled and a complete set of harness for a six-dog team-Carlson's six dogs that had found their way into the boiling pots of the White Indians. Scattered about the stone floor lay numerous curiously shaped stone and copper implements, evidently the mining tools of a primitive race of people, and among these Connie also found ancient weapons of ivory and bone.

Slowly they made their way toward the entrance, pausing now and then to examine the rough walls of the tunnel which had been laboriously driven through the mass of copper ore.

"Wonder who worked this mine?" speculated Connie. "Just think of men working for years and years, I s'pose, to dig out copper-with all that gold lying free in the gravel."

"Yeh, son, seems queeah to us. But when yo' come to think of it, coppeh's wo'th a heap mo'n gold, when it comes down to usin' it fo' hammehs, an' ha'poons, an' dishes. Gold ain't no real good, nohow-'cept fo' what it'll buy. An' if they ain't no place to spend it, a man mout a heap sight betteh dig out coppeh."

The sun was shining brightly on the snow when the three finally stood at the tunnel-mouth and gazed out into the valley of the Ignatook. A light wind carried the steam and frozen fog particles toward the opposite bank, whose high cliffs appeared from time to time as islands in a billowy white sea. Almost at their feet the waters of the creek wound between banks of glittering snow crystals, and above them the great bank of frozen mist eddied and rolled. The stakes Carlson had driven to mark his claim, and that of Pete Mateese, were plainly visible, and upon the black gravel at the water's edge were strewn the weather-darkened bones of many men.

"The copper miners!" cried Connie, pointing toward the grewsome collection. Waseche nodded.

"I reckon so," he answered. "I wondeh what ailed 'em."

"Aye, what!" echoed O'Brien. "What but th' Ignatook-that's shpelt death to iverywan that's come into uts valley. Th' whole Lillimuit's a land av dead min. Av ut ain't th' wan thing, uts another. Phwere's Car-rlson, an' Pete Mateese? Av ye don't dhrink th' pizen wather, ye'll freeze, er shtar-rve, er ye'll go loike Craik an' Greenhow, that come in with me-an' that's th' wor-rst av all. Craik, glum an' sombre, follyin' day an' noight th' thrail av a monster white moose, that no wan ilse c'd iver see, an' that always led into th' Narth. An' Greenhow, yellin' an' laughin' loike foorty fiends, rushin' shtraight into th' mid-noight aurora-an 'nayther come back!

"Ye'd besht moind phwat Oi'm tellin' yez," he croaked, as he sat upon the bank and watched Waseche and Connie stake adjoining claims.

"Ut's th' same in th' ind," he continued, letting his glance rove over the tragic relics of a bygone race. "Some comes f'r copper, an' some f'r gold-an' phwere's th' good av ut? Th' metal is left-but th' bones av th' diggers mark th' thrail f'r th' nixt that comes! An' none goes back!"

"We're going back!" said Connie. "You don't know, maybe Pete Mateese got through."

"Mebbe he did-but ut's mebbier he didn't," despaired the man.

"Now, look a heah, O'Brien," cut in Waseche, "yo' be'n up heah so long yo' plumb doleful an' sad-minded. We-all ah goin' to get out of heah, like the kid done told yo'. Come on along now an' stake out yo' claim 'long side of ou'n. I've mined, it's goin' on fo'teen yeah, now-an' I neveh seen no pay streak like this heah-not even Nome, with her third beach line; the Klondike, with its shallow gravel; oah Ten Bow, with its deep yellah sand. It's no wondeh yo' expected a stampede."

But the Irishman was obdurate and, despite all persuasion, flatly refused to stake a claim.

"Come on, then," said Waseche. "We-all got to locate that map of Carlson's. He said how he mapped the trail to the Kandik."

"Sure, an' he did!" exclaimed O'Brien. "Oi found th' map six months agone. But ivery toime Oi'd thry to folly ut, thim danged haythins ud dhrag me back."

"Where is the map? Le's see it," said Waseche. O'Brien stared from one to the other of his companions, with a foolish, round-eyed stare. Suddenly he leaped to his feet and without a word dashed down the creek in the direction of the river, leaving Waseche and Connie to gaze after him in astonishment.

"Where's he going?" asked the boy.

"Sea'ch me!" exclaimed Waseche; "come on-we got to catch him. Me'be he's took a spell. Po' fellow, I'd hate fo' anything to happen to him now."

O'Brien had obtained a very considerable lead when the others started and, giving no heed to their cries to halt, he lumbered heavily onward. Connie and Waseche ceased to call and, saving their breath, dashed after him as fast as their legs could carry them. The Irishman was in good muscle and wind, thanks to his life in the open, but in neither speed nor endurance was he a match for his pursuers, who were iron-hard from the long snow trail. When O'Brien neared the pass that gave out onto the river, the two partners redoubled their efforts and, although they gained perceptibly, O'Brien was still ten yards in advance when he plunged between the two upstanding rocks that Connie had named the "gate-posts of the Ignatook."

"As they passed between the pillared rocks the Indians broke cover, hurling their copper-tipped harpoons as they ran."

Without a moment's hesitation, the boy, who had outdistanced Waseche, dashed after him and with a "flying tackle" tripped the fleeing man, so that both rolled over and over upon the rime-covered ice of the river. And Waseche Bill, bursting upon the scene, saw, approaching silently and swiftly among the rocks and scrub of the river's edge, shadowy, fur-clad forms. The White Indians were guarding well the egress from the creek of the frozen steam.

Hastening to the two struggling figures, Waseche jerked them to their feet, and before the surprised O'Brien knew what was happening, he was being unceremoniously hustled into the narrow valley from which he had just emerged-and none too soon, for as they passed between the pillared rocks, the Indians broke cover and rushed boldly upon them, hurling their copper-tipped harpoons as they ran.

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