If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten. — Rudyard Kipling

Gold Seekers of '49 - Edwin Sabin




Almost Left Behind

Don Antonio proved as good as his word. After the early breakfast, at which all the family hospitably presided, back of the house were found waiting three saddle horses, and two bullocks for pack animals. The trunk was balanced on the broad back of one bullock, and firmly lashed there; considerable of a trick it was, too, to fasten it in place on the rolling hide, but Don Antonio's packers did the job in short order. On the other bullock were lashed the bedding rolls. Now there remained only to bid good-bye to host and hostess, pay off Maria and Francisco, thank everybody, mount and follow the guide to Panama.

Maria and Francisco refused to accept anything extra for their faithful services; so did Angel and Ambrosio, Captain Crosby's boatmen. They shook their heads. "No, we may be black, but we are very much gentlemen. When Americans treat us right, we treat them right," they asserted.

"It is well that you have no ladies in your party," vouchsafed Don Antonio. "The trip is hard for ladies, senors. They must either ride astride, through rain and mud, or trust themselves to chairs upon the backs of natives. Sellero do we call that kind of a contrivance."

And when Charley had seen the road, he was rather glad, after all, that his mother had not come. However, as Don Antonio remarked, "women had gone that way, and many others probably would do the same." Charley felt certain that his mother could get through, if any woman could! She was spunky.

The horses were thin, scrawny fellows, so small that Charley himself stood higher than they. On the other hand, the saddles were prodigious; they covered the little animals completely, and the large wooden stirrups nearly grazed the ground. It seemed to Charley that the saddle alone was weight enough for such horses; but when at word from his father he cautiously mounted into the seat, his horse appeared not to mind. With its high horn and cantle, the saddle fitted like a chair. To fall off would be hard—which was one good thing, at least.

So they started; the guide (who was a real Indian) walking barefoot before, Mr. Adams, Mr. Grigsby and Charley riding in single file after, the two pack bullocks plodding behind, and another Indian, to drive them, trudging at the rear of all.

The narrow trail led first through a large tract of sugar-cane growing much higher than one's head, and forming a thick, rustling green wall on either side. As the little cavalcade proceeded, the Indian guide, who wore a peaked plaited straw hat called jipijapa, a pair of white cotton pantaloons, and a heavy-bladed knife—a machete—hanging at his waist, with his machete occasionally slashed off a cane, to suck.

Suddenly the trail left the cane, and plunged into the jungle; and for most of this day the party did not see the sun again. Here the guide did a queer thing: he halted a moment, took off his pantaloons and hung them about his neck. Evidently this was the sign that the plantation and town had been left behind!

The horses' hoofs clattered and slipped; and looking down, Charley saw that he was riding over a rude pavement, made by flat stones embedded in the soft soil. This, then, was the ancient Royal Road—the Treasure Trail from Panama! The stones were tilted and sunken and covered with mud; a thicket of plants and brush crowded either edge, and gigantic trees, enveloped with flowering vines, towered over, forming an emerald archway through which a few faint sunbeams filtered to fleck the way. Monkeys swung from branch to branch, and jabbered and gathered cocoanuts and other fruit; gayly colored parrots flew screaming, or hung upside down and screamed. The whole dense forest was alive with strange animals and strange cries. Charley's eyes and ears were constantly on the alert. He was having a great experience.

Ever the old road led on. In places it disappeared, swallowed by mud and vegetation. There were numerous holes, where the stones had sunk or been displaced; and picking their way the tough little horses and the panting bullocks floundered to their knees. The trail seemed to be climbing; it also was growing rougher. It crossed dank, dark ravines; skirted their sides; and wound along the rim of precipices so deep that the sight made Charley dizzy.

Toward noon the customary daily thunderstorm descended. So they halted under a spreading plantain tree, whose leaves, broader even than banana leaves, really were very good umbrellas. Here they ate their lunch, too.

The rain made traveling worse, and worse waxed the old road.

"I vow!" exclaimed Mr. Adams, as his small horse staggered and almost fell on a steep, slippery place. "This is as bad as storming the City of Mexico. How do you like it, Grigsby?"

"I thought I'd seen bad trails, on some of my overland trips with Fremont, but this beats them all."

Several times dead mules, perhaps with their necks broken, were passed; and frequently were passed trunks and other baggage, thrown aside, all of which showed that this trail of the old fortune-hunters was now the trail of the new fortune-hunters, also, bound for California.

"We must be on top of the range," presently remarked Mr. Grigsby. "Feels like it, anyhow."

Scarcely had he spoken, when on a sudden the trail emerged from the forest, to creep along the face of another precipice. The path was only a ledge jutting out not more than three feet from the solid wall hung with vines; at the edge was a sheer drop of thousands of feet—or maybe not more than 2000, but to Charley, whose left foot hung over the drop, it looked like 20,000.

The horses trod gingerly, with ears pricked, carefully avoiding scraping the wall lest they be forced over. This was wise, but not pleasant for the riders. Behind, the bullocks snorted. Gazing off, Charley saw what might have been a whole world spread beneath him: league after league of rolling, misty green, where the jungle was dwarfed by distance so that it looked like a lawn! Above it circled and circled huge vultures; and although these were high in the air, he and his party were higher yet!

"I smell salt water!" exclaimed Mr. Grigsby. "We're at the Pacific slope!"

Charley sniffed; he heard his father sniffing; but he must admit that Mr. Grigsby's nose was better than theirs. Now the trail entered another jungly forest, and it certainly led down instead of up, as if indeed they had crossed the divide. Hurrah!

However, the journey was not done, by any means. The road grew worse still, as if the rain here had been harder. Making a misstep, down slipped Charley's horse from the trail, over the edge of a clay bank, and landed on his side twenty feet below. Charley sprawled on his face in mud and rotted branches.

[Illustration] from Gold Seekers of '49 by Edwin Sabin
DOWN SLIPPED CHARLEY'S HORSE FROM THE TRAIL.


"Hurt?" called his father.

"No, sir," answered Charley, grabbing the lines; and pulling his horse along, he struggled to the trail again. He was not hurt, but he was a sight to behold. The only thing to do was to laugh, and go on.

"Yes, boys; I smell salt water," insisted Mr. Grigsby. "And," he added, "I'll be mighty glad to see it."

The paving was now so bad that the horses and bullocks preferred walking at one side, following little paths that made long cuts and short cuts through the brush. These paths were so narrow that the riders had to clutch tight and bend low, or be swept from their saddles. But there was no use in trying to guide those little horses, who seemed to know what they wanted. Soon Charley and the others were wringing wet, from the rain-soaked trees and bushes. This was part of the game, but Charley was beginning to feel tired and cross. Still, he wouldn't have missed the trip for anything. He'd have a lot to tell Billy Walker, when they met in the gold fields.

It was late afternoon when the Indian guide (whose name was Pablo) stopped short, at a mud puddle, washed his feet, and put on his pantaloons!

"Hurrah!" cheered Mr. Adams. "That means Panama. Pablo's dressing. And now I do smell the ocean, and no mistake."

"I've been smelling it for hours," reminded Mr. Grigsby.

Yes, the smell of ocean was in the air! Charley recognized it. It smelled the same as the Atlantic, but of course it must be from the Pacific. And within a few minutes the road had broadened; huts began to appear, alongside. Through an opening, ahead, were disclosed buildings of stone—a crumbling old church, almost covered with vines, was passed—and beyond appeared a wide stretch of beautiful blue: the Pacific Ocean!

Amidst ranches and huts and buildings of white wood and weather-beaten stone; on a broad level road crowded with people light and dark, and horses and mules and goats, and fringed with palms and bananas and plantains, oranges, cactuses, citrons, magnolias and acacias, crossing an old moat or wide ditch, through an arched gateway in a thick stone wall the belated little party entered famous Panama. Over the broad Pacific the sun hung low, and in the harbor, about a mile and a half from the end of a street which gave the view, lay a large black steamer with smoke welling from her stacks.

"That must be the California," exclaimed Mr. Adams, quickly. "She has steam up."

"I reckon," said Mr. Grigsby, peering keenly, "we're just in time."

What a bustling city was this Panama! And what a number of Americans were here! The buildings, of stone, wood, and clay, were two and three stories high, with iron balconies bordering the upper stories. By the open doors of some of the houses Charley caught glimpses, through the halls, of charming flowery courts within, where fountains played. The air was sweet with many scents and the fresh sea breeze. The narrow-paved street down which Pablo proudly led his procession was well crowded with animals and men—the latter being of all nationalities. Spaniards in peaked hats and long velvet cloaks, Indians and other bare-footed natives, and many foreigners, speaking English, and clad in white linen, or miners' costume, or even broadcloth.

As the party threaded their way through the strange gathering, hails constantly reached them.

"Where you from?"

"Hello, Georgians!"

"Say, you're too late for the California."

"You needn't hurry, misters."

"How's the trail?"

"Oh, misters! Got a ticket to San Francisco?"

And so forth, and so forth.

The street opened into a large public square, or plaza, surrounded by stores and fruit stands, and supplied with benches under the palms and magnolias. On three sides the streets gave views of the ocean. Many people were lounging about, but it was no place to stop and rest, for this party. No, not when the favorite hail said, "You're too late," and when, as emphasis, there lay the California with smoking stacks.

"We'd better go right on down to the beach, Grigsby, hadn't we?" queried Mr. Adams; and he spoke shortly to Pablo, directing him.

So they crossed the plaza (where several tents had been erected by stranded gold seekers), and took another street which led straight through a gateway in a crumbling wall to the water.

Panama was built upon a long point, and the ocean washed it on three sides, bordered by a beautiful sandy beach unbroken by wharves or piers. Line after line of surf came rolling in, the last line shattered by the shallows before it reached the shore. Southward were high mountains, veiled in mist. Far out across the white-flecked blue rose green islands. Between the islands and the curving shore lay several ships at anchor—one of them the California. Just beyond the inner line of surf were stationed a regular flotilla of canoes; their boatmen were lounging about on the beach, alert for passengers, and at sight of the little procession of travelers filing down they made a grand rush.

"This way, senors!"

"One medio to big ship, senors."

"My canoe biggest."

"Try me, senors. Ver' hones'."

"No. I hones', senors."

Plainly enough the only way to get out to the California was by canoe. Mr. Adams tried to make himself heard. More gold seekers were loafing and waiting on the beach; and these added their shouts and advice to the clamor of the boatmen.

"Going out to the California, strangers?" demanded a red-shirted man, pushing his way through the uproar.

"Yes."

"No use. She won't take you. She's full up and all ready to sail. Don't listen to these boatmen. All they want is a fare. You might just as well unpack, and wait for the next boat, like the rest of us."

"We'll go out, anyhow," declared Mr. Adams. He picked on one of the jostling boatmen—a yellow fellow with a tiny moustache and earrings. "Two boats," he said, holding up two fingers. "The California."

"Si, si," nodded the boatman. He beckoned to a partner, who sprang to help him; and the remainder of the boatmen calmly dispersed and sat down again.

Pablo and the packer began to unlash the luggage from the bullocks, and following the example of his father and Mr. Grigsby, Charley stiffly dismounted. Immediately the yellow boatman stooped and motioned to Charley to climb aboard his back.

"We'll have to be carried out to the canoes, Charley," spoke his father. "They can't come inshore. Hurry up."

But at this instant there was another interruption. "You are Americans, aren't you, gentlemen? Then will you help another American? I hate to ask it, but I've got to."

He was a young man, of not more than twenty-one or two, exceedingly thin and sallow. Otherwise he would have been good-looking. His voice and manner were refined.

"What's the matter?" asked Mr. Adams.

"My name is Motte. I'm flat broke. I came through a month ago; was taken with cholera and robbed. I sent my wife on, by kindness of other strangers; and I've been here ever since, waiting for a chance and trying to get work. She's up in San Francisco, alone, and what's happened to her I don't know. There are 300 people here now, sir, waiting for the next vessel, and tickets are selling at from six hundred to a thousand dollars! If in any way you can take me along with your party, I'll do anything in the world." He choked with his earnestness. "I hate to beg—but I must get to my wife. I'll pay you back at my first opportunity. There's work at the gold fields, they say. I—I——" and he choked again.

"We can't stand here talking," said Mr. Adams. "We must catch that steamer. Come along out with us, and we'll talk on the way."

Charley clung pickaninny fashion to the back of the yellow boatman, who waded with him into the surf. This was great sport. Staggering and slipping, and wet almost to his shoulders by a swell, the boatman landed Charley in one of two canoes that were being held ready. Mr. Adams was landed in the same way; so was young Mr. Motte. Into the other canoe were plumped Mr. Grigsby and the baggage. The canoes—larger and heavier than those other dug-outs used on the Chagres—were swung about and pointed out for the steamer. The smoke from her stacks seemed thicker, as if she was on the very point of leaving her anchorage. Charley, anxiously gazing, imagined that he could see her move! Oh, thunder! Were they to be left behind, after all? It was a long way, yet, to the steamer, and although Mr. Adams urged the two paddlers to hurry, the canoes appeared only to creep.

But line after line of surf they skilfully surmounted—first rising high, then sliding down, down, upon the other side, to meet the next line. Gradually the shore receded; the white and gray buildings of Panama, set amidst bright green, against the background of great Ancon peak, outspread wonderfully behind the ruined battlements of the old wall that fronted the harbor. And the California, smoking as if to bid "Hurry!" still waited. Gangway stairs were still lowered, down her side; and Charley kept his eyes on these. If they were hauled in, then that would be a bad sign. Meanwhile Mr. Adams talked with the young man, who impressed Charley more and more as being honest. Mr. Adams was convinced of the fact, also, for he said:

"All right. If they'll take us on the ship you can come along with us, and welcome; can't he, Charley? If they won't, we'll see what else is to be done."

Presently the black steamer loomed over. From her high rails hundreds of faces were peering curiously down; and the captain himself, in uniform, was standing at the head of the stairs. He did not look pleased, as the two canoes reached the stairs.

"Hello!" he bawled. "You can't come aboard. What do you want?"

"We want to go to San Francisco," replied Mr. Adams.

"You can't do it, in this ship. We're full up. Stand clear; we're pulling out." And Charley, to his dismay, heard the clank of the anchor chains.

"One minute! Just one minute!" shouted up Mr. Adams, standing and waving his letter. "I have a note for Captain Flowers."

"Come aboard with it quick, then. But you can't stay," ordered the man above. And up the stairs hastened Mr. Adams.

The captain snatched the letter without ceremony (and as if he was very cross), opened it and read it. Watching anxiously, as the canoes rose and fell on the waves at the foot of the stairs, Charley could hear most of the conversation. The captain spoke loudly and decisively.

"Where'd you leave Crosby?"

"Back at Pena Blanca."

"I'd given him up. His places are taken. But I'll do the best I can for you. How many in your party? Who is your extra man?"

"A young fellow I'm trying to help along."

"Does Crosby know of him?"

"No, sir, he does not," truthfully answered Mr. Adams.

"Well, you can come aboard, you and your two, but he can't. I'll do that much for Captain Crosby. More I cannot do, and I positively won't. I'm stretching a point now. We're overloaded already. Hustle your baggage in; the anchor's afloat and you've no time to lose."

"Come on, Charley, you and Grigsby," called Mr. Adams.

"Bear a hand with that baggage," bellowed the captain; and several sailors sprang to the head of the stairs.

Mr. Adams ran rapidly down again, passing Charley, who scampering gladly up.

"You'll have to wait over, Motte," he said.

Mr. Motte's face fell.

"All right," he muttered.

"Why don't you give him that extra ticket?" proposed Mr. Grigsby, over his shoulder, as he followed Charley.

"I was thinking of that. Here," Mr. Adams extended the ticket. "That will help you out, won't it? We've no use for it. It will take you to San Francisco."

"I'll leave on the next boat, then," stammered young Mr. Motte, flushing. "I'll see you in San Francisco or the diggings, and pay you. I surely will."

"No pay expected," returned Mr. Adams, now remounting the stairs, and pressed close by the baggage. "It was given to us; we give it to you, and glad to do so. Good-bye."

"Good-bye."

Charley was about to call good-bye, also, but the words died on his lips, for almost the first face that he saw, beyond the captain, as he gained the deck, was the face of the long-nosed man. The long-nosed man had touched the captain on the shoulder.