Here to return to
THE MEETING OF TRIBES
THE Kirghis and Tartars of eastern Europe and Central Asia have held annual trading fairs from a time beyond which record does not go. Their restless progenitors, moving eastward, took the custom with them to the shores of the northern Pacific, northeast to Bering Sea and the limits of Siberia, and with them it must have crossed the narrow ice-ridden straits and found a resting-place in Arctic America. The great sandspit between Hotham Inlet and the waters of the ocean, at the head of Kotzebue Sound, has been the scene of this meeting for no one knows how many centuries. When the chinook winds melt the snows, and the Arctic ice pack retreats northward from Bering Sea and the straits, thither the tribes flock from hundreds of miles in all directions. Down the Kowak, the Selawik, and the Noatak rivers from the far interior come the taller, more distinctly Indian-featured men of the mountain fastnesses and scant timber, bringing jade from their mysterious hills, and fox, ermine, wolverine, and caribou pelts. From Point Hope and the coast far to the north come the squat tribes of the sea line with their . ivory, blubber, whalebone, and white bearskins. From the Diomedes and East Cape sail the dwellers on the straits, their umiaks built up with skins on the sides, that the rush of waves may not whelm them in mid sea, their wives and children at the paddle, and their leathern sails spread to the favoring gale. From King’s Island, rocky eyrie to the south, where they dwell in huts perched like swallows’ nests on the side of sheer cliffs, come others, while even the far shore of Norton Sound sends its contingent.
Wives, children, dogs, boats, sleds, and all earthly possessions they bring, leaving nothing behind but the winter igloo with its entrance gaping lonely where barbaric life had swarmed. They set up their topeks on the sandspit, which, for eleven months in the year so desolate and bare, now seethes with life. They visit back and forth. They exchange news of the berg-battered coast and the snow-smothered interior, and they trade. Hunting and fishing and trapping is business with an Eskimo; trade is his dissipation. During the weeks of this annual fair, things pass from hand to hand, and come back and are traded over again, in the pure joy of bargaining. Not only inanimate objects pass current, but the tribesmen, in the exuberance of barter, sell their dogs, their children, and sometimes their wives. It is a mad carnival of exchange.
The spirit of barter was in the air, and the boys found themselves entering keenly into it, yet with an eye to the future rather than for the purposes of mere trade. Their future travel must be by water, and they wanted an umiak, but those who had them also wanted them. They found one that belonged to a Point Hope man, however, that could be bought, but not at the price which they could pay. In vain they offered caribou hides, wolverine pelts, and almost everything they had. The price was not sufficient, and they would have given up had the eye of the Eskimo not lighted on the jade Buddha. Harry noted his interest in this, and the Yankee in him rose up.
He vowed that the bit of green stone was priceless and could not be parted with on any account. The Eskimo offered various articles for it. Harry would not sell. The owner increased the price. Harry turned his back with much indifference. He remembered the lesson of his trading with the little people of the Diomedes. How long ago that seemed! But the recollection of it was still there. Joe looked on this with much interest, well concealed. He had failed to buy the umiak. If Harry could do it, he was glad, but it would not do to show his gladness. At length, baffled, after offering everything but what the boys wanted, the Point Hope man went away. Joe laughed at Harry, who was chagrined. But the next day the Eskimo came back, bearing the umiak, which was a small one, upside down on his shoulders. He staggered beneath its weight, and it so nearly covered him that only his feet appeared. It had a ludicrous appearance of walking by itself. He emerged from beneath this and laid it at Harry’s feet.
ESKIMO FAMILY TRAVELING
“Will the white men give me the little stone for this?” he asked. With wonder in his heart Harry waited a moment, not to seem to yield too easily. Then he passed over the bit of jade and placed his hand on the umiak. The bargain was completed.
Thus it is with the Innuit. He is a shrewd trader, yet, sometimes, for no explainable reason, will give his all for a bauble, and in this he is perhaps not so very different from white men, after all. This peculiar trade left the boys with much merchandise still on their hands, and with this they bought trade goods and supplies for the furtherance of their journey. They sold their dogs and sled, and prepared for a boat trip to Bering Straits, where they might find ships. Failing in this, they planned to work south along the coast. Under no conditions would they go north. They had had enough of that.
About this time they took an inventory of their possessions. They had a tent, umiak, rifles, and ammunition, flour, sugar, salt, matches, and clothes rather the worse for wear, but new muckalucks. They had a few battered kitchen utensils, sufficient for rough camp housekeeping, a little dried fish, and some caribou meat, but not much. They had also vigorous health, courage, and a great desire to get home, and they planned to make a start soon, but while they planned things happened.
As may be imagined, among such a horde of barbarians from strange villages all was not law and order. At first the excitement of trading and the novelty of the situation kept everybody busy, but by and by barter got to be an old story. Contests and games became prevalent, trials of strength in wrestling, shooting-matches, blanket-tossing, in which if no one volunteered to be tossed they went out and caught some one, who was tossed whether he needed it or not. Barbarians are like children, and those who lost at the games were not always good-natured. But the sport of all others at this meet seemed to be football. Not the Rugby game, but a sort of go-as-you-please match, in which a few started, then newcomers joined the weaker side, till hundreds swept back and forth across the tundra, sometimes for many hours. There were no rules to this game; it was simply get the ball back any way you could, and some of these ways proved to be rough indeed. Yet all these things caused only minor fracases and individual discontent. There was another matter which threatened to make things more serious, and in fact did so. That was the making of “hootch.”
If you mix flour and water and let it ferment, then distill the mixture by means of a rude apparatus, the result is “hootch.” Probably the coast natives learned this method from some renegade white man; then the business spread. It came to the sandspit that summer, and, as a result, old single-barreled shotguns were in great demand. If you take one of these and put the butt of the barrel in a good hot fire, the block becomes unbrazed from the breech and the barrel is a tube. It serves as the worm of a primitive still. Many of these machines were set up in the topeks on the sandspit, and the resultant hilarity became noticeable long before the boys discovered its cause. They foresaw trouble, but they could do nothing to prevent it. They did remonstrate with old Panik, the head man of the tribe with which they had come ‘down river, and toward whom they had very friendly feelings. Indeed, since the kindness of the village to the boys had been in part repaid by their help in saving the youngsters from the river ice, there had been strong bonds of brotherhood between them all.
Panik had become infected with the desire to make the new drink, and had paid many skins to a Chuckchis for the old gun. He built a small fire at his topek door, and while Harry argued with him he thrust the butt of the barrel into it with a cheerful grin.
“You shall drink with me,” he said. “The new drink is very good.” And then there was an explosion, and Panik sank to the ground without a cry. The old gun was loaded, and the heat of the fire had discharged it. The chief was dead, and Harry and Joe were much pained and horrified by the accident.
They helped bury him with much ceremony and genuine sorrow, but the matter did not end here. The Indian is more vindictive than the Eskimo, and the relatives of the old chief took up the matter. They blamed the Chuckchis who had sold the gun, even intimated that he had loaded it purposely, and they demanded either his life in return, or the payment of a large amount of goods. The Chuckchis, as I have said before, are a truculent and warlike people, and this one resolutely and scornfully refused reparation. Then there was a fight, and the Chuckchis killed one of Panik’s relatives with his own hand.
The feud thus begun spread rapidly, the hootch adding fuel to the flames, and in twenty-four hours the camp was a pandemonium. All took sides, though few knew just why, or with whom, and a wild free fight ensued. Eskimos, maddened with the vile liquor, ran amuck, killing whatever came within reach, until they were themselves killed, and life was nowhere safe for a moment.
It was of no use for the boys to interfere, and they soon saw that their only safety lay in flight. This agreed with their plans to get away as soon as possible, and they were fortunate in having a boat and sufficient outfit. Accordingly they quietly loaded the umiak, bade good-by to such of the villagers as were sober and they could reach without danger, and were about to embark when the Point Hope man who had sold them the umiak appeared. He was tipsy, like most everybody else, and in quarrelsome mood. He laid his hand on the umiak and demanded it back, saying that he was not satisfied with the terms of the trade. It was of no use to reason with him; he was not in a condition to understand things. Behind him came other Eskimos, also armed and equally tipsy, and matters looked decidedly unpleasant. It seemed as if they would have to fight to retain their property.
Joe took the matter in hand. “Stand by,” he said, “ready to shove off; I’ll reason with this fellow.” He beckoned the Eskimo back a step from the water, and the other followed with a satisfied leer. Probably no one can be so insolent in the eyes of a white man as a half-drunken barbarian when he thinks he is safe in the abuse of power.
“You say the umiak is yours?” said Joe, quite humbly. Harry’s blood began to boil at this submissive tone, but he held his tongue.
“Yes,” replied the Eskimo, stepping nearer to Joe threateningly, “it is mine, and you must — ugh!”
Joe had suddenly caught a wrestling grip on him, and before the tipsy man of the ice knew what had happened, he was swung into the air and sent whirling into the shallow water of Kotzebue Sound, gun and all. Joe sprang to the umiak. “Shove off!” he said sharply, and putting his own shoulder to the light boat, with Harry’s help it slid into deep water while Joe sprang aboard. A roar of laughter went up from the crowd on shore as the discomfited Eskimo staggered to his feet, and tried in vain to use his wet gun on the fast receding boat. Then a moment after, the mood of the crowd changed, and they began to shoot, but none of the shots took effect. The wind was at their backs, and under steady strokes of the paddle the umiak was soon out of shooting distance. The last the two boys saw of the great trading fair at Hotham Inlet was a group of their former companions standing on the beach shooting at them. The last they heard was the uproar of drunken riot and occasional rifle-shots as the land blurred in the distance behind them. They were free once more, headed south, and the dancing waters of Kotzebue Sound flashed around them as they spread their deerskin sail before the freshening breeze.
“We are well out of that,” said Joe, glancing to windward with a sailor-man’s eye, “but I don’t exactly like the looks of the weather.”
Harry noted the gathering clouds to northward, the discontent in the voice of the wind overhead, and agreed with him. The shallow waters of the sound were already leaping in a jumble of waves, from whose white caps the wind-snatched spindrift swept to leeward. Their light boat danced along like an eggshell before the wind, safe as yet, but with it he well knew they could go only with the gale. They were bound to sail before it. After all, what matter? That was the direction in which they wished to go, and the harder it blew the faster they would go. So while Joe stood by the steering paddle, Harry busied himself in making all snug aboard, and tried not to fret about the weather.
Meanwhile the weather was fretting all about him. An hour, two hours passed, and what had been a little blow grew into a big one. The skin boat, light as a cork, fairly flew before it. Often it seemed to skip from wave to wave, taxing Joe’s skill at the steering paddle to the uttermost to keep it head on. To turn sidewise to the wind and sea was to be rolled over and over in the icy waters and be lost. Yet Joe kept her straight. Now and then some invisible force seemed to drag the cockleshell down, and a rush of foam came aboard, but she rose again, and Harry bailed out before the next volume of water could come in. It was wet and exciting work, but still neither boy lost his head, and still they kept afloat. There was a hissing roar in the waters and a howl of the wind overhead that made it difficult to hear one’s own voice even when shouting, but a nod of the head or a look of the eye was enough for a command from the skipper, and Harry obeyed promptly and steadily. Never had he admired Joe so before. The sturdy young whaleman seemed to glow with power as he sat erect in the stern of the umiak, his cap gone and his long hair blown about his set, watchful face, his will dominating the elements and shaping their fury to his purpose.
On they drove through a period of time that seemed endless. There was no night to fall, else Harry was sure that it would have come and gone, and still Joe steered, erect and immobile as the Sphinx, while Harry bailed till he felt as if all the waters of Kotzebue Sound must have come into the boat and been thrown out again. His very arms were numb with weariness and the chill of it. How long a period five hours is can be known only by those who have passed it in physical discomfort and with great danger continually threatening, yet even such a period passes. Five hours, ten miles an hour at the very least, they were making a record passage of the sound, yet the lowering clouds and the mist blown from tempestuous waves gave them no glimpse of any land.
Once Harry thought he could hear a dull booming sound, like the roar of cannon, but he could not be sure. The strain was telling on him, he knew, and he laid it to fancy. Then after a time he forgot it, for they seemed to enter a stretch of tremendous cross seas, seas which fairly leaped into the umiak and filled it faster than he could bail out. He worked with the tremendous energy of despair, and then the tumult ceased more quickly than it had arisen. The boat seemed gliding into still waters, and the booming roar grew very loud, for it sounded from behind, down the wind. He looked at Joe and saw his face lose its look of grim determination for the first time since the wind had begun to blow. Joe nodded his head over his left shoulder, and as Harry looked, a trailing cloud of mist lifted and showed a rugged cliff, in the shelter of which they were.
The umiak had made port, where, they knew not; it was enough that it was a haven of refuge. The boat glided gently up to a shelving beach and touched. Harry attempted to spring out, and fell sprawling to the earth, which he embraced, partly because he was so glad to see it, but mainly because his legs were so cramped and numb that he could not use them. When he scrambled to his feet, he found Joe limping painfully out, much like an old man, so great had been the strain of his vigil, so cold the water that had deluged him. They set up the tent in a sheltered nook, and Harry made a fire from driftwood, which was plentiful. He had matches in a waterproof safe in his pocket, else their plight had been worse, for everything in the boat was wet through and had been for hours. They made a meal of what they had, the last of their caribou meat and some dried fish, put great driftwood logs on the fire in front of their tent door, turned in beneath the canvas in its grateful warmth, and slept for hours and hours, utterly exhausted.
The storm continued for two days more, in which they did little except keep warm and pile driftwood on their fire, drying out their supplies as best they might. These were in sad shape. The flour was nearly spoiled, the sugar and salt melted and mixed, and the bulk of their matches soaked. These last they dried with much care, and made some of them serviceable again, but the most of their provisions were practically ruined.
When the storm broke, they climbed the hills behind them and looked about. Then their wonder was great. The umiak had been driven to the one harbor on that rocky shore, the one spot for miles to the east or west where they could land in safety. Had they come to the land a dozen furlongs either side of it, the surf must inevitably have overturned their frail boat and drowned them in the undertow. The discovery chilled them at first, — death had been so very near, so seemingly inevitable. Then it heartened them greatly. They felt that the watchful care of Providence was over them still, and that its aid was ever present, however great the unknown dangers about them.
Descending the hills again, they took their rifles and began to explore the little inlet, following it back into the hills, and keeping a sharp outlook for game, which they sadly needed. They found nothing but a snow-bunting or two, too small to shoot except in extremity, and a sort of gray Arctic hawk, which promised to be but poor eating. Probably there would be ptarmigans back farther, but they did not see any. At the head of the inlet they found a brawling stream which descended from the hills over mica-schist ledges and along sands that sparkled with yellow mica. Harry sighted this mica as he stooped to drink from the stream, and scooped up a handful of it with eagerness. He called to Joe, and both examined it closely, but it was plainly mica.
“What did you expect it was?” asked Joe.
“Well,” replied Harry, “the same as you, judging from the way you rushed up when you saw me scoop it up.”
Then they both laughed, and Joe took the yellow seal from his pocket and looked at it lovingly. “It was down this way somewhere that this came from,” he said. “What we’ve got here is fool’s gold, though.”
“So it is,” said Harry. “All the same, a mica-schist country is liable to be gold-bearing. We had a course in mineralogy at the prep school, and I learned about such things. What do you say if we prospect for a day?”
They would better have been hunting. They knew that, but the gold fever is a strange thing. The germs of it had been planted in their systems by the purchase of the singular nugget from the old Kowak River chief; now the sight of some mica in a stream had stirred the dormant microbes into action.
They tore back to camp and brought the umiak paddle to use as a rude shovel. They had nothing better. Harry also brought their one pan. Hunger was not to be thought of, home and civilization could wait; they had the gold fever. There is surely something in the Alaskan air that makes men peculiarly susceptible to this disease. During the last fifteen years a hundred thousand men have left home and friends, lucrative positions, all the comforts of “God’s country,” and risked fortune, health, and life because of this burning fever in their veins. Where one has succeeded thousands have failed, yet still they throng to the wild north, driven by the insatiable thirst for sudden wealth. Though the boys did not know it, the crest of this wave of hardy immigrants, wild fortune-seekers, and adventurers was already surging toward them from the south, and had nearly reached the wild coast that harbored them. Perhaps its enthusiasm had preceded them in the air. Anyway, they had the gold fever.
They dug the sparkling micaceous sand from the banks of the little creek, and Harry panned it, as the miners say. He filled the pan with it, added water, and by whirling and shaking the pan and flipping the water over the sides of it, he washed out all the lighter particles. As he reached the bottom, he proceeded more carefully, and both boys watched the result with eagerness. To “pan gold “well is not easy and requires much practice, but almost any one can with a trial or two pan it roughly. As the last of the sand was washed away by the whirling water, Harry set up a shout.
“Black sand!” he said. “We’ve got black sand!”
“Humph!” said Joe, much disappointed.
“What of it? It isn’t black sand we want, it’s gold.”
“Yes,” replied Harry excitedly, “but that’s a sign. The black sand always comes with the gold in placer mines. Wait till I wash this sand away.”
He whirled the pan with great care, and the heavy sand gradually disappeared. Then the boys looked at each other and shook hands. In the bottom of the pan lay several yellow flecks. Gold without a doubt, but not much of it. As a matter of fact, their discovery amounted to very little. Scarcely a stream in the Rocky Mountains, from Central America to Cape Lisburne, but in it you may find these occasional flecks of gold. To find it in paying quantities is altogether another matter, as many a gray-bearded prospector has learned after years of toil and rough life. But the boys were too young and inexperienced to realize this. They thought that fortune was verily within their grasp. They prospected up and down the stream, and never realized that they had not eaten dinner and were very hungry.
Yet wherever they went they found nothing but these faint prospects, and after long hours, fatigue and hunger finally asserted themselves and they started back for camp. As they tramped, weary and disappointed, they came round a bend in the creek and Joe’s eyes lighted up. There on the water’s edge, strolling along a clay bottom thinly strewn with micaceous sand, were three ptarmigans, picking up bits of gravel for the good of their crops, as such birds do. They looked large and plump in the eyes of two hungry boys.
“Lie low,” whispered Joe, “and we’ll have one of those birds.”
They watched them eagerly from behind a sheltering mound on the bank. The birds pecked leisurely for a while, then went toward the bank and settled contentedly beneath some dwarf willows in the sun. Paddle in hand, Joe slipped noiselessly forward, got behind the clump of willows, crept round it, and with a sudden blow of the paddle laid out a ptarmigan. The others flew.
“There!” said Joe. “Here’s a good bite for dinner. Let’s hurry back.”
With renewed energy they hustled back to the camp, three quarters of a mile away, and soon had the ptarmigan broiling over a good fire. They made some rude flapjacks with the remnants of their spoiled flour, and ate the bird pretty nearly bones and all.
“There,” said Harry, “I feel better. Pity we did not have the rifle along. We could have had the two others. However, they’re up there somewhere and will do for another meal. Wonder what these fellows find to eat.”
He picked up the crop of the ptarmigan and opened it with his knife. “Buds, bugs, and gravel,” he said. “Not a very tempting diet, but we may have to come to it ourselves. Hello, what’s this?”
In the gravel in the bird’s crop were three or four pebbles, not much larger than grains of rice, but flattened and yellow. They examined these with growing excitement.
“It’s gold!” exclaimed Harry. “It’s gold! we’ve been prospecting in the wrong places.”
“I should say we had,” said Joe, giggling somewhat hysterically; “but we can’t kill ptarmigans enough to make a gold mine.”
“No, no,” cried Harry, too much in earnest to appreciate a joke. “It’s the clay bottom. The birds picked up the nuggets there. Gold sinks through sand in the stream just as it does in the pan. We should have gone down to ‘bed rock,’ as the miners say. There’s where it is. Come on back!”
The sun had swung low to set behind the northern cliffs, and it lacked but two hours of midnight. But there would be no darkness in that latitude in late June, and forgetting fatigue, they hurried back to the spot which they now called Ptarmigan Bend. Here a bed of stiff clay seemed to underlie the bed of the stream, leading down to a mica-schist ledge over which the waters rippled as if from an artificial pond.
From the edge of this little lagoon they scraped sand and pebbles, getting well down into the clay with the now frayed and worn paddle. The clay flowed from the pan in a muddy stream, the sand easily followed, and they scraped out the larger gravel with care, panning the sand beneath it again. Then they set down the pan and shook hands with each other once more.
In the bottom of the pan were a dozen of the flat nuggets such as had been in the ptarmigan’s crop, and one large one, the size of a large bean! They were on bed rock surely, and the gold that had tantalized them for a time seemed about to yield itself up in quantity.