The riddles of God are more satisfying than the solutions of man. — G. K. Chesterton

Gold Seekers of '49 - Edwin Sabin

An Attack by the Enemy

The Georgia pulled out that very evening instead of lying over until morning; and it was rumored that even with this hasty start there would be barely time enough for the passengers to catch the Pacific Mail steamship at Panama, for San Francisco.

Mr. Adams and the Fremont man (whose name was Grigsby) stayed by the baggage until the steamer sailed; but Charley wandered about the decks, "seeing things." And there was plenty to see. The Georgia seemed to be a fine boat. She had three decks, all crowded. The upper deck was for the first-cabin passengers, who paid the highest fare, and were supposed to have special privileges of table and state-rooms. The pilot-house was forward, and so were the rooms of the captain and first officers. The second deck contained the large dining cabin, with state-rooms on either side of it for the other officers and the second-cabin passengers. Down below, on the first deck, where the portholes were often under water, in a large room with rude bunks in tiers along the sides were crowded the steerage passengers. Here they ate and slept, all together. On this deck, forward, were housed the crew; and some steerage passengers overflowed into the forward end of the second deck.

Dusk was settling when the Georgia emerged from the broad mouth of the Mississippi into the Gulf. At the same time a bugle blew for supper—and what a scramble there was! The first-cabin passengers were to eat first, while the second-cabin must wait. As for the steerage passengers, Charley afterwards found out that they were fed, a bunch at a time, from a board platform slung from the ceiling by ropes, behind a railed partition. Enough were admitted by the stewards to fill the enclosure; when they had eaten out of the tin dishes supplied with stew and beans, etc., from dirty kettles, another hungry company were let through.

Almost before the bugle signal had done ringing, the first-cabin tables were crowded, and passengers were standing behind the chairs, waiting impatiently for those seated to quit and get up. The long-nosed man and his two cronies had been smart, or else they had bullied their way, for they already were eating when, too late, Charley and his father arrived. Saying, good-naturedly, "I guess I'll stand guard while you fellows eat," Mr. Grigsby had remained by the boat.

"We'll wait a bit, ourselves," spoke Mr. Adams, to Charley, as they caught sight of the turbulent dining-room.

The scene was amusing, and also irritating. It seemed to Charley as though they would never find a place. Every time anybody got up, somebody immediately popped into the vacated chair. Charley began to be alarmed lest the supply of food would run short.

"Take the first chance that comes, now," bade his father. "I'll go up and send Mr. Grigsby down as soon as you're started, so you can mount guard while I eat. I'll be watching our friends the enemy."

Charley pushed forward, and presently he himself popped into a place. The long-nosed man and his two partners had leisurely finished and were strolling out—the man with the bowie-knife using it as a tooth-pick! But Charley knew that his father and Mr. Grigsby would watch them, so he pitched into the food. It was a case of everybody reaching and grabbing. Charley only wished that he had longer arms.

Just as he was midway Mr. Grigsby came down to a seat; and soon up ran Charley, to release his father. Now was he on guard, alone, ready to do his best if anybody tried to seize the boat; but nobody did try. Meanwhile he might gaze about.

He saw funny sights, for the Georgia was rolling and tossing in the waves of the Gulf. It affected the passengers very oddly. They were all kinds, these passengers, both first-cabin and second-cabin—for the second-cabin passengers were allowed on the upper deck, although not to sleep. A great many were Southerners, including a number of long, lank, dark Arkansans, Georgians, Louisianans and Mississippians. Pistols and knives were plentiful, although notices, posted about the ship, said, plainly: "The Wearing of Deadly Weapons Aboard this Ship is Forbidden." For that matter, another notice said: "Passengers Are Requested to Wear their Coats at Meals." But nobody obeyed either notice.

There were only a few women, among the first- and second-cabin passengers; the steerage contained the most women, accompanying their emigrant husbands and sons. However, Southerners and Northerners, and the men like the women, many of the passengers were beginning to act very queerly.

They clustered along the rail, leaning over and hanging to it as they leaned; they sat down, against the rail, and against the state-rooms; and soon a lot were lying sprawled, with their eyes closed. Most of these had come aboard at New Orleans, probably. The brisk ones had been aboard already, from the North. Charley was wickedly pleased to see the long-nosed man stretched limp, and greenish in the face, while his two companions meanly teased him. And then, as Charley's father and Mr. Grigsby appeared, Charley began to feel queer, himself.

The ship sank down, down, down—then she rose up, up, up; and which was the worse sensation he could not tell. Either one was the worse, while it was happening!

"I—believe—I'll—go to bed," faltered Charley.

"Pshaw! You are looking kinder green," said Mr. Grigsby, surveying him.

"Feel sick, Charley?" queried his father.

Charley's actions spoke louder than words, for suddenly he was at the rail getting rid of his hard-earned supper. When he tottered back, already his father was spreading quilt and blanket against the rail behind which hung the boat.

"I guess you had better turn in," he directed, to Charley. "You'll be more comfortable on the deck than on the boat. Besides, I suppose that Jacobs gang wouldn't hesitate to cut the boat and let it drop, if they had the chance."

Charley crawled upon the bed. He was so miserable that really he didn't care whether anybody cut the boat down or not.

"Do you think I'll get well again?" he groaned.

His father and Mr. Grigsby laughed as if this were a joke.

"Why, sure," declared the Fremont man. "But I know how you feel. When I was in California in Forty-six a lot of us Fremont men were sent down from Monterey to San Diego by boat. Every one of us was laid flat, and Kit Carson was the sickest of all! He vowed he'd rather cross the desert a hundred times than take another sea voyage."

Charley did not open his eyes again till morning. When he did open them he was feeling much better. He sat up, and decided that he was going to be all right. The ship was still pitching up and down, and was out of sight of land. The deck was littered with sick people lying in all postures, and some cattle that had been taken aboard at New Orleans, for beef, were lowing wretchedly as if they, too, were sick. No doubt they were.

There was not much difficulty in getting a seat at breakfast this morning, for some of the passengers who had come down from the North were ill a second time. When Charley was picking his way to the dining cabin he stumbled on somebody, and looking down he beheld the long-nosed man. But the long-nosed man did not even notice that he was being stepped on. Charley chuckled. Mr. Jacobs in such shape need not be feared.

That day they were not interfered with, in their possession of the boat. Charley had the fun of sleeping on its canvas covering, that night, where, all alone, he swung delightfully as in a great cradle, while the stars shone down upon him, and the spray from the paddle wheels occasionally drifted across his face. His father and Mr. Grigsby seemed to prefer the deck, against the rail.

The voyage down to the Isthmus was rated at seven days from New Orleans. By the third day most of the sea-sick passengers had recovered, and everybody settled to enjoy themselves. A number of gamblers and drinkers were aboard; these kept to the main cabin, where they sat at cards, robbing whomsoever they might, or stood at the bar and guzzled quantities of liquor. On the decks the main pastime was reading California travels like Fremont's explorations, or Richard Dana's splendid "Two Years Before the Mast"—which Charley knew almost by heart; or in speculating on "How much gold can I dig in a day?" That was the favorite question: "How much gold do you suppose a fellow can dig in a day?" The calculations ran all the way from $100 to $10,000.

An awning was stretched over the upper deck, for shade; and as the Georgia sped out of the Gulf and headed south for the Yucatan Channel under the Tropic of Cancer, between Cuba and Yucatan, the shade felt mighty good. A number of passengers got out their white suits of linen or cotton; but the majority of the Forty-niners stuck to their flannel shirts and coarse trousers and boots.

The third evening they crossed the Tropic of Cancer, and by night were entering the Yucatan Channel, which led to the famous Caribbean Sea where pirates used to lurk. The long-nosed man and his partners had not again bothered Charley and his two partners. They had kept below, most of the time, in the main cabin, with other roisterers, and it began to look as if they had decided to let the Adams party alone.

Charley continued to sleep on the boat, swinging over the stern of the steamer, between sky and sea. Here in the tropics the days were subject to sudden sharp squalls of rain; and Mr. Grigsby unfastened the edge of the canvas covering of the boat, so that he could stow the bedding underneath, when not in use. In case of rain at night, Charley could crawl under, also, and cuddled between the seats might sleep snug and dry. Mr. Grigsby had been pretty smart, to seize on that boat when he did, for the awning leaked, in spots, and many of the passengers found themselves getting wet.

From the Yucatan Channel the Georgia crossed off the mouth of the large Honduras River, which opened into the Gulf of Honduras, on the line between Mexico and Central America. The shore of Honduras could be faintly seen, on the right, and around the course cropped up wondrous coral keys with snow-white beaches, and tufty palms outlined against the blue sky. The water was a beautiful green.

That was all very nice, and now the Isthmus of Panama was only two days ahead, across the Caribbean Sea; but the report spread that the barometer was falling and a change in weather evidently was due. Toward evening the sailors tightened the awning and made things more secure, as if they were preparing for a storm. The sun set gorgeously crimson—an angry sun; the petrels, skimming the waves about the ship, twittered excitedly, and other sea-birds seemed hastening early for land.

"You'd better crawl under the canvas, to-night, Charley," bade his father. "We're liable to have rain."

"Where'll you sleep, then?" asked Charley.

"Oh, on the deck with Mr. Grigsby. We'll find a dry spot."

Mr. Adams, as a soldier, had slept out many a night before—yes, and in many a storm; but Charley was fond of his quarters in his own private nest. He liked to cuddle there and hear the rain patter on the canvas close above him, while the waves talked beneath him, and the great paddles whirred and thumped. Under the canvas covering he gladly slipped, and got in an exceedingly comfortable position there.

He fell asleep soon and soundly—and he awakened to a storm indeed. The wind was moaning and swishing, the spray was pelting the bottom of the boat like shot, the rain was pouring in a perfect deluge, with a steady, thunderous rhythm, and the boat swayed and shook as the big waves struck the steamer's sides. Underneath the canvas all was pitch dark. At first Charley was a little bewildered and frightened; but after a few minutes he settled back to enjoy himself. He rather pitied the folks trying to sleep dry on deck; and he wondered how it was faring with his father and Mr. Grigsby.

He could hear hoarse orders to the sailors, and hasty tread of feet, forward; and calls and exclamations among the passengers. Then there was a heavy weight almost on top of him, sagging the canvas, the canvas was torn aside a little way, and he struggled to sit up, in alarm. Maybe they were to launch the life-boat. But no——

"It's all right, Charley. Lie still," spoke his father's voice. "I'm only coming in with you, out of the rain. Don't move. Whereabouts are you?"

"In the stern. Did you get wet?"

"Some. The whole awning leaks and the cabin and every other shelter are full of people. Whew, but it's dark, isn't it! No lightning, even. If you're in the stern, I'll take the bow. There. This is fine."

The canvas had been pulled snug again, and Charley could feel his father crawling to the bow.

"Where's Mr. Grigsby? There's room for him, too."

"He's found a dry spot, he says. So he'll stay out, as long as he can. Go to sleep, now."

Charley tried. He heard his father settle himself with a grunt, and presently begin to breathe in a little snore. That was good, for his father was not well, yet, and ought to be resting. But Charley himself found it hard work to go to sleep. The wind soughed, the spray pelted, the rain hammered, and the ship staggered and quivered, while over the stern swayed the boat.

Suddenly, amidst the voices outside, along the deck, Charley caught a quick outcry near at hand, and a scuffle—the scrape of feet, and the thump of a body falling. The tones were those of Mr. Grigsby.

"What are you doing? Stand back!" Hard breathing—and the sound of a short struggle. "Now, be off—none of that, or I'll put a hole through you! You dirty scoundrels! Thought you'd catch us, did you? Keep away, after this, or I'll shoot on sight."

Charley attempted to sit up, and scraped his face on the low canvas. His movement aroused his father.

"What's the matter, Charley?"

"I don't know. Mr. Grigsby was scolding somebody."

"What's going on, Grigsby?" hallooed Mr. Adams. "Anything wrong?"

"No, not now. Go to sleep. Tell you in the morning."

"Need me?"

"Not a bit. It's all over with. Just a prowler—and he won't come again. Go to sleep."

"Well——" assented Mr. Adams. "Are you dry?"

"Dry as powder. Good-night."

"Good-night. But you'd better come in with us. Plenty of room."

"No, thank you. I'm comfortable."

Mr. Adams settled himself. Charley, his heart beating, waited, listening. But Mr. Grigsby spoke not again. The rain was lessening, too—and although the seas continued to pound, and the wind to sough, the storm seemed to be ceasing. Presently Charley dozed off, and when he awakened, it was morning. His father already had left, for he was not in the bow under the canvas. Charley hastily crawled out, into sunshine and a wide expanse of blue under which a gray green ocean tossed its racing white-caps.

The passengers on the upper deck were astir, spreading out wet clothing and bedding, to hang them from the awning and the rails to dry. Charley's father and Mr. Grigsby were talking earnestly together, but checked themselves when they saw Charley emerge, and land on deck.

"Morning to you," greeted Mr. Grigsby. "Did you sleep well?"

"Fine," said Charley. "Did you? What was the matter in the night?"

"Yes; you can count on me to sleep in any kind of weather," answered Mr. Grigsby. And—"Shall we tell him?" he queried, of Mr. Adams.

Mr. Adams, who looked a little worried, nodded.

"Yes," he replied. "We might as well. He's one of us."

"The truth is," resumed Mr. Grigsby, to Charley, "one of those three fellows tried to cut the boat down, in the night. But I caught him. Here's his knife."

"Which one was it?" gasped Charley, cold at the thought.

"Jacobs," said his father. "And lucky for us that he didn't do it. Mr. Grigsby has a sharp ear. Why, we wouldn't have lasted a minute in that sea. Now, wasn't that a cowardly thing even to think of?"

"I'd feared it," admitted Mr. Grigsby. "But it didn't seem possible, in any human being. Last night was a good night for it—and I suppose the davits would have looked as though the boat had been torn loose by a sea. Whew! I ought to have shot the scoundrel without parleying."

"What'll we do about it?" quavered Charley, sitting down hard on the bench. He felt weak.

"It's all over with, so don't be scared, boy," encouraged his father. "A miss is as good as a mile, you know. We're safe, after this. Oh, Mr. Grigsby and I've decided there's little to be done. Of course, here's the knife for evidence, and we'll speak to the captain; but there's nothing else to do. We have to look out for ourselves."

After breakfast Mr. Adams brought aft, not the captain, but the first mate. He was the same official who had objected to their using the boat at all.

"So you think somebody was bent on cutting that boat down, do you?" he queried, brusquely, of Mr. Grigsby.

"I don't think so; I know it," returned Mr. Grigsby.

"How do you know it?"

"Because I knocked him down and took his knife."

"Do you know who it was?"

"His name is Jacobs."

"You can prove that, can you?"

"To my own satisfaction; yes."

"Well, I suppose you are aware that there are over a thousand passengers aboard this boat, and several hundred have knives just like that one. You can prove nothing. I told you in the beginning that you occupied this boat at your own risk. So don't bring your complaints forward. But if any damage is done to this boat you'll be held responsible."

So speaking, the first mate turned on his heel and left. Charley saw his father flush angrily, but Mr. Grigsby only laughed.

"Let him go," he said. "We can do our own fighting."

A passenger standing near evidently had overheard the conversation, for he asked, quietly:

"Do I understand somebody tried to cut your boat down, last night?"

"Yes, sir."

"His name was Jacobs, wasn't it?"

"Yes, sir."

"I heard that scuffle, and I've been wondering about it. So the ship won't do anything about it, according to the mate?"

"No, sir."

"Then I know who will," asserted the man—a quick, erect, middle-aged man with grayish moustache and goatee. He wore miner's costume, but he looked like a gentleman, nevertheless. "Wait a bit."

He, too, left. Gazing after him as he passed along the deck under the awning, they noted him pause and speak with several other men, who glanced back at the stern as if he was telling them about the boat. A little group of them accompanied him, and disappeared with him.

Soon they all came up on deck again, and with them was Mr. Jacobs himself. Charley thought that he looked rather frightened, as in their midst he moved aft. The group was swelled, en route, until when they halted before the Adams party they numbered about twenty—a sober, stern lot, standing in a determined manner with Mr. Jacobs pushed to the fore.

The man with the goatee acted as spokesman.

"This is the man, is it?" he asked, of Mr. Grigsby.

"I wouldn't call him a man," said Mr. Grigsby, contemptuously. "But he's the critter I referred to."

Mr. Jacobs scowled blackly at Charley, and his father, and Mr. Grigsby, and tried to brazen it out. However, 'twas plain to be seen that he was ill at ease.

"What's the meaning of this?" he demanded, all around. "What did you bring me up here for?"

"You're accused of attempting to cut that boat down, last night, along with the persons who were in it," answered the man with the goatee.

"Who accuses me?"

"I do," said Mr. Grigsby, shortly.

"It's a lie," retorted the long-nosed man, with an oath. "I wasn't up here. I was down below, keeping dry."

"Here's your knife," pursued Mr. Grigsby, holding it out.

The long-nosed man laughed sneeringly.

"Not my knife. I don't carry one. Besides, the ship's full of knives like that."

"Yes," said Mr. Grigsby. "But it isn't full of dogs like you! If you weren't up here last night, how did you get that bruised cheek, and those finger-marks on your throat? You look powerful like somebody who'd been knocked down and held for a while."

"It's a lie," repeated the long-nosed man, but rather weakly. He braced up. "Of course it's a lie," he appealed, to the group. "Isn't my word as good as his?"

The man with the goatee laughed grimly—and so did several others.

"Your word? It's about the poorest security you can offer. Why, you're nothing but a common gambler and a thug. You're one of those rascals who've been fleecing people down in the cabin. Just yesterday you robbed a man of his last cent by cheating him at cards. Faugh! Some of us have been watching you, and we know all about you. I wouldn't put it at all beyond you to cut down a boat, in the night, and drop it, with a man and a boy sleeping in it. Well, gentlemen," and he addressed the group, "soon or late we'll have to organize a little law and order committee, for protection in the gold fields, and I suppose we might as well begin right here. What'll we do with this specimen?"

"Throw him overboard!" came the angry response.

"String him up!"

"We'd better talk it over, first, hadn't we?" proposed a more cautious voice.

"All right. Somebody guard the prisoner."

"I'll watch him," proffered Mr. Grigsby, significantly handling his rifle.

The group withdrew a short distance, to confer apart, leaving the long-nosed man in a clear space before Mr. Grigsby. A number of other passengers had been attracted by the scene, but they stood at a respectful distance, saying nothing.

The long-nosed man glared alike at Charley, his father, and Mr. Grigsby, but he was afraid to move.

"You'll pay for this," he said, loudly. "It's a scheme to get rid of me, is it, and take my share in that gold mine you're making for? But it won't work. These passengers won't see an innocent man suffer." And so forth, and so forth, while Mr. Grigsby and Mr. Adams answered never a word—and neither, of course, did Charley. He rather hoped that, after all, the group would decide not to handle the long-nosed man roughly, even though he was a dangerous person.

Mr. Jacobs evidently was nervous despite his bragging; and when the group advanced again, he turned pale.

The man with the goatee spoke, first addressing Mr. Grigsby and Mr. Adams.

"While we believe the accused guilty and deserving of being put into safe keeping, some of us don't think the evidence that he was cutting down the boat conclusive enough to warrant us in dealing with him as we'd like to. As for you," he continued, now sternly addressing the long-nosed man himself, "we give you this warning. Don't show yourself on the upper deck again, and don't sit at cards with anybody. If we catch you up here, or gambling anywhere aboard, we'll relieve the ship of your society very quickly. Now go."

Still pale, the long-nosed man hastened away, and went below. The next time Charley saw him was on the Isthmus of Panama.