“Captain, who are the four silent men leaning over the rail on the other side of the boat?” asked Tad Butler. “I have been wondering about them almost ever since we left Vancouver. They don’t seem to speak to a person, and seldom to each other, though somehow they appear to be traveling in company. They act as if they were afraid someone would recognize them. I am sure they aren’t bad characters.”
Captain Petersen, commander of the steamer “Corsair,” which for some days had been plowing its way through the ever-changing northern waters, stroked his grizzled beard reflectively.
“Bad characters, eh?” he twinkled. “Well, no, I shouldn’t say as they were. They’re fair-weather lads. I’ll vouch for them if necessary, and I guess I’m about the only person on board that knows who they are.”
Tad waited expectantly until the skipper came to the point of the story he was telling.
“They are the Gold Diggers of Taku Pass, lad.”
“The Gold Diggers of Taku Pass?” repeated Tad Butler. “I don’t think I ever heard that name before. Where is this pass, sir?”
The skipper shook his head.
“No one knows,” he said.
“That is strange,” wondered Butler. “Does no one know where they dig for gold?”
“No. They don’t even know themselves,” was the puzzling reply.
Tad fixed the weather-beaten face of the skipper with a questioning gaze.
“I don’t think I understand, sir.”
“I’ll tell you what I know about it some other time, lad. I haven’t the time to spin the yarn now. It’s a long one. I’ve been sailing up and down these waters, fair weather and foul, for a good many years, and I’ve seen a fair cargo of strange things in my time, but this Digger outfit is the most peculiar one I ever came across. They are a living example of what the lure of gold means when it gets into a man’s system. Gold is all right. I wish I had more of it; but, my boy, don’t ever let the love of it get to the windward of you if you hope to enjoy peace of mind afterwards,” concluded the skipper with emphasis.
“What’s that he says about gold?” interjected Stacy Brown, more commonly known to his companions as Chunky, the fat boy.
Stacy, with Ned Rector and Walter Perkins, had been lounging against the starboard rail of the “Corsair,” observing Tad and the Captain as they talked. A few paces forward sat Professor Zepplin, their traveling companion, wholly absorbed in a scientific discussion with an engineer who was on his way to an Alaskan mine, of which the latter was to assume control. Many other passengers were strolling about the decks of the “Corsair.” There were seasoned miners with bearded faces; sharp-eyed, sharp-featured men with shifty eyes; pale-faced prospectors on their way to the land of promise, in quest of the yellow metal; capitalists going to Alaska to look into this or that claim with a view to investment; and, more in evidence than all the rest, a large list of tourists bound up the coast on a merry holiday. The former, in most instances, were quiet, reserved men, the latter talkative and boisterous.
“The Captain was speaking of the lure that gold holds for the human race,” replied Tad Butler in answer to Stacy Brown’s question. “I guess the Captain is right, too.”
“Be warned in time, Chunky,” added Rector.
“I’ve never seen enough gold to become lured by it,” retorted the fat boy. “I should like to see enough to excite me just once. I shouldn’t mind being lured that way. Would you, Walt?”
Walter Perkins shook his head and smiled.
“I fear you will have to shake yourself–get over your natural laziness–before you can hope to,” chuckled Ned. “I doubt if you would know a lure if you met one on Main Street in Chillicothe.”
“Try me and see,” grinned Stacy.
“There must be a lot of gold up here, judging from what I have read, and from the number of persons going after it,” added Tad, with a sweeping gesture that included the deckload of miners and prospectors. “But the hardships and the heart-breakings must be terrible. I have read a lot about the terrors that men have gone through in this country, especially in the awful winters they have in Alaska.”
“I shouldn’t mind them if I had a sledge and a pack of dogs to tote me around, the way they do up here,” declared Chunky.
“That would be great fun,” agreed young Perkins. “You wouldn’t have far to fall if you got bucked off from that kind of broncho, would you, Stacy?”
“Not unless you fell off a mountain,” answered Ned, glancing at the distant towering cliffs of the coast range.
“I was asking the Captain about those four men yonder,” said Tad.
“Oh, the fellows who don’t speak to anyone?” nodded Rector.
“Who are they? I have wondered about them.”
“I don’t know their names, but the skipper tells me they are known as the Gold Diggers of Taku Pass,” replied Butler. “The queer part of it is, he says, that no one, so far as he is aware, knows even that there is such a place as Taku Pass. They don’t know themselves,” added Tad with a smile.
“That’s strange,” wondered Rector. “Crazy?”
“No, I think not. They are prospecting for an unknown claim,” replied Tad.
“I–I don’t know anything about that,” spoke up Stacy Brown. “But I know who those fellows are.”
“You do?” exclaimed the boys in chorus.
“Yes. I asked them. That’s the way to find out what you want to know, isn’t it?” chuckled Stacy.
“Who are they?” asked Butler laughingly.
“The minery-looking fellow is Sam Dawson. The one beside him is Curtis Darwood. The tall, slim chap nearest to us is Dill Bruce. They call him the Pickle for short.”
“He looks sour enough to be one,” laughed Walter.
“The other chap, the little one, is Curley Tinker. And there you have the whole outfit. I’ll introduce you to them if you like,” volunteered Chunky.
“No, thank you. I already have tried to talk with the men, but they don’t seem inclined to open their mouths,” replied Butler.
“It strikes me that you have made more progress that anyone else on this boat, so far as the four gold diggers are concerned,” added Rector, addressing Chunky.
“Yes, I am convinced that Chunky is rather forward,” agreed Tad.
“Oh, no one can resist me,” averred the fat boy. “Anything else you want to know, Tad?”
“Yes, a great deal. But here is the Captain. He will tell me.”
Captain Petersen had taken a fancy to the boys almost from the first. He had learned who they were early on that voyage, and in the meantime they had become very well acquainted with the commander of the “Corsair.” He had taken pains to explain to the lads many things about the country past which they were sailing–things that otherwise they would not have known, and the voyage was proving very interesting to them, as well as to Professor Zepplin himself.
“Come below now and I’ll tell you the story,” invited Captain Petersen, starting to descend the after companionway. “All of you come along. That will save your asking questions later on,” he smiled.
“You see, he invited you on my account,” chuckled Stacy Brown, tapping his breast with the tips of his fingers.
The lads filed down the companionway behind the Captain, and when they had finally settled themselves in the skipper’s cabin and he had lighted his pipe, he began to speak.
“I always come below and put my feet on the table after we pass the Shoal of Seals,” he explained. “That is the time I take my ‘watch below,’ as we call it, when we come down for a rest or a sleep. But you are eager to hear the story. Very good. Here goes. A good many years ago an expedition came up to this part of the world on an exploring mission. In that party was a Dr. Darwood from some place in the East. I don’t believe I ever heard the name of the place, and if I knew the state I have forgotten it. Well, to make a long story short, the party was ambushed by the Kak-wan-tan Indians. Every man of the party was captured and all were put to death, with the exception of Dr. Darwood. Somehow, the Indians had learned that he was a big medicine man, so they made the Doctor captive and took him over the mountains many miles from there. They probably killed the others so as to make sure of the Doctor.”
“What did they want with a medicine man?” interjected the fat boy.
“They wanted him professionally. Their chief was a very sick man. I guess the old gentleman was about ready to die. At least he thought so. The chief bore the name of Chief Anna-Hoots. Nice name, eh? No wonder he got sick.”
“He must have belonged to the owl family,” observed Chunky.
Tad rebuked the fat boy with a look. The Captain regarded Stacy quizzically, then proceeded with his story.
“Their own medicine man had been killed by a bear. You see his medicine wasn’t calculated to head off bears. The chief, therefore, was in a bad way. Dr. Darwood was commanded to make the chief well, and, so the story goes, after examining Hoots, he at once saw what was the trouble with the old man. He set to work over the savage, not so much from a professional interest as that he knew very well his life would be forfeited did he not do something for the patient. It is a safe guess that the Doctor never had worked more heroically over a patient. Well, he saved the chief–had him on his feet and hopping around as lively as a jack-rabbit in less than twenty-four hours. There was great rejoicing among Anna’s people, and Darwood was feasted and made much of. He was almost as big a man as Old Hoots himself. Nothing was too good for him in that camp.”
“Why didn’t he poison the whole tribe while he had the chance?” questioned Rector.
“Perhaps it wasn’t professional,” smiled the Captain in reply. “But Chief Anna-Hoots–precious old rascal that he was–was so grateful that he made the Doctor chief medicine man over all the tribes and a tribal chief of one of the subordinate tribes. And now we are coming to the point of our story. Old Hoots, later on, let the Doctor into a great secret. Having driven the evil spirits out of Anna and set him on his feet almost as good as new, the patient evidently was of the opinion that the medicine man was entitled to something more than the ordinary fee for such a service. He took the Doctor to a place where a roaring glacial stream of icy water was tearing down through a narrow gash in the mountains on its way to the sea, and there he showed the doctor-chief gold in great quantities, so the story runs, the pass being guarded by the Bear Totem. It is not certain whether the vein from which this gold had been washed was then known. I think Darwood must have found it later on and located a claim. He at least took from the mouth of the pass enough gold to make him a fairly rich man. This he hid away, awaiting a favorable opportunity to get away with it. Such opportunity presented itself while his tribe was away on a hunt in the fall for meat for the winter, and made his escape. After some months of terrible hardships he succeeded in reaching civilization, fairly staggering under the weight of the gold he had brought away. He had the gold-madness badly, you see.”
“He was plucky,” muttered Butler.
“Yes. It was Darwood’s intention to return, at the head of a well-armed party, properly equipped, and work the pay dirt to its limit. But he died before he could do so. The hardships of that journey, loaded down with dust and nuggets, led to his ultimate death. You see what avarice will do to a fellow. It gets to windward of him every time.”
“I’d be willing to stagger under all I could carry and take my chances on the future,” observed Chunky reflectively.
“So would we all,” nodded the skipper. “That’s the worst of us, our greed. I am glad I am at sea, where I can’tdig. Nothing was done in the matter of locating and working the claim for some years after the Doctor’s death. Then a grandson, Curtis Darwood, who is now aboard this boat, found a paper or map or something of the sort, on which was a description of the Doctor’s find. It couldn’t have been very definite or they wouldn’t have been so long in locating the place. Of course, the younger man was fired with the desire to find this wonderful mine. The lure had him fast and hard. He came up here alone the first time and prospected all summer, but failed, and late that fall he went back home. When he returned the three other men, who are his companions now, were with him. They have been together ever since in their prospecting work. Dawson is a pioneer prospector who knows the game thoroughly. The others, who have been up here three years, might now be placed in the same class, though Dawson is the real miner. One can’t help but admire their pluck and persistence, but I shouldn’t want to be caught interfering with them. When a fellow gets the gold madness he is a dangerous customer to annoy.”
“Have they found the gold?” asked Walter Perkins.
Captain Petersen shook his head.
“I think not. If they have, only they know it. They take no one into their confidence. They went home for the winter last fall, and what amazes me further is that they are getting up here so late this spring. Here it is June. They should have been on the job six weeks ago, and in order to do so they ought to have wintered in the hills. To me that means something. It will be a wonder if this unusual move on their part doesn’t attract attention. You may believe they are watched. There are, no doubt, those who are watching the Diggers, and who do not miss any of their movements.” The skipper hesitated, then brought a big fist down on his cabin table with a bang that set the glassware jingling. “By George, I begin to see a light!” he roared.
“What do you mean?” cried Chunky.
“What is it, sir?” chorused Tad and Ned in one voice.
“That accounts for Red Whiskers. That accounts for his presence on–” The skipper checked himself suddenly. “But no matter. It isn’t for me to say.” He lapsed into thoughtful silence. “Well, what do you think of the story?” he asked a few moments later.
“It is all very remarkable,” answered Butler. “Where are they going–their destination, I mean?”
“You never can tell. They have explored pretty much all of the country within a few hundred miles of here, and it wouldn’t surprise me at all if they had stumbled over the right place dozens of times and didn’t know it. But there is one significant fact. They have brought up a lot of equipment this time. It looks as if they thought they had the place pretty well located. It certainly does look that way. There’s another thing I forgot to tell you. This place, this pass where the gold is supposed to lie, is the abode of a great and angry spirit.”
“A really, truly spirit?” questioned Walter wonderingly.
“I can’t say about the really-truly business,” replied Captain Petersen, with a grin. “I am telling you the story as I have heard it. Had Old Hoots’ tribe known that the Doctor went in there and dug out gold which he salted away they would have put him to death. It’s a sacred place. It was then, and I’ll wager it is now. You may believe that the superstition has been handed down.”
“But the Indians up here now are not at all savage, are they?” asked Butler.
“Perhaps not where the white man has taken possession in force. But you get into the far interior–there is a great deal of Alaska that the white man knows very little about yet–and you will find them savage enough, provided they think they have you in a pocket, and especially so if you interfere with any of their religious customs or beliefs. In these respects they are simply human.”
“I should call them inhuman,” observed the fat boy.
“I don’t blame them,” nodded Tad.
“Now, that is the story of the Gold Diggers, so far as I know it,” continued the Captain. “As I have already said, not many persons up here do know it. A veil of mystery surrounds the four silent men. They make no other friends, confide in no one, and live in a little world all their own. The story, as I have repeated it to you, was told to me by a man from their part of the country who came up here to spend the summer last season. That is how I came to know the details. It is possible, though not probable, that you might get them to tell you something about the country.”
“I’ll make them talk,” answered Stacy pompously.
“What is their destination?” asked Butler quickly.
“Skagway. However, that undoubtedly is a blind. They may be going on farther from that point, or they may be intending to work back along the coast after they leave the ship, then strike into the hills at some remote point. I can’t say as to that, of course. They will disappear. You may depend upon that, and nothing may be heard of them again for a year.”
“What do they do for provisions?” questioned Rector.
“The same as you will have to do if you penetrate far into the interior. They hunt and fish, saving their canned supplies for the winter, for the winter months are long and drear up in this far northern country.”
“When does winter set in?” asked Ned.
“Very early. It seems to be most always winter up here.”
“Thank you very much,” said Tad. “This has been most interesting. I should like to ask them something about the country where we are going. Of course I shouldn’t presume to question them about their own affairs. That would be none of my business.”
“Where are you going?”
“We had planned to strike north from Yakutat.”
“You will find rough country that way. I should say you would have tough traveling all the way. If you can get the Gold Diggers to open up, they will undoubtedly be able to give you some useful information that would enable you to lay your course to the best advantage. But I think I know the Diggers. You may not be able to get a civil word out of them.”
“They’ll talk to me,” answered the fat boy confidently.
“Please don’t permit yourself to be overcome,” warned Rector. “Remember your most excellent opinion of yourself has been the cause of some mighty falls already.”
“Well, I fell in soft spots anyhow,” retorted Stacy.
“Ordinarily on your head, I believe,” answered Ned quickly.
Again thanking the Captain for his kindness, the lads returned to the deck. Tad leaned against the rail thinking over the story related by the skipper. The romance of the quest of the Diggers appealed to Butler’s adventure-loving nature. He declared to himself that he would draw them into conversation and satisfy his further curiosity. Looking them over in the light of what he had heard, Tad saw that the four were determined-looking men, were men who would do and dare, no matter how great the obstacles or the perils. He could not but feel a keen admiration for them. They were real men, even if they were surly and reticent.
“Tad, how would you like to belong to that party of prospectors?” asked Ned, nodding toward the four.
“I can’t imagine anything more exciting. I wish we might. I wonder if they are going our way?”
“Why don’t you ask them?”
“I intend to,” answered Tad, rousing himself and starting towards the prospectors who were lounging apart from the other passengers on the deck of the steamer.
“Watch him get turned down,” grinned Stacy. “I shall have to break the ice for him. He never will be able to do it for himself.”
“Better wait until you are asked,” advised Ned Rector.
As Stacy had said, Tad did not succeed in getting into conversation with the Diggers that day. Early on the following morning the boys were on deck, being unwilling to miss a single moment of the scenery.
The “Corsair” was swinging majestically into Queen Charlotte Sound, a splendid sweep of purple water, where great waves from the Pacific rolled in, sending the steamer plunging desperately. There was a scurry on the part of many of the early risers to get below decks, for the change from the quiet waters through which the boat had been sailing to this tumultuous sea was more than most of them were able to stand. Stacy Brown was already on his back in the shadow of a life boat, groaning miserably. Walter Perkins’ face was pale, but he held himself together by a strong effort of will, but Tad Butler and Ned Rector appeared not in the least affected by the roll of the steamer. Both were lost in admiration of the scene that was unfolding before them.
“They roll along with the lightness of thistledown across a green field,” declared Tad enthusiastically, speaking to himself. “It is simply glorious.”
He heard someone come to the rail at his side, but the lad was too fully absorbed to look around.
“That wasn’t bad for a sentiment, young fellow,” said a voice at his elbow. “If you stay up in this country long enough, however, you will get all the sentiment frozen out of you. I know, for I’ve been all through it. I’m lucky that my bones aren’t up yonder somewhere.”
“Yes, sir,” answered Butler.
Glancing around he found himself gazing into the face of Curtis Darwood.