“All ready, Miss Welse, though I’m sorry we can’t spare one of the steamer’s boats.”
Frona Welse arose with alacrity and came to the first officer’s side.
“We’re so busy,” he explained, “and gold-rushers are such perishable freight, at least – “
“I understand,” she interrupted, “and I, too, am behaving as though I were perishable. And I am sorry for the trouble I am giving you, but – but – ” She turned quickly and pointed to the shore. “Do you see that big log-house? Between the clump of pines and the river? I was born there.”
“Guess I’d be in a hurry myself,” he muttered, sympathetically, as he piloted her along the crowded deck.
Everybody was in everybody else’s way; nor was there one who failed to proclaim it at the top of his lungs. A thousand gold-seekers were clamoring for the immediate landing of their outfits. Each hatchway gaped wide open, and from the lower depths the shrieking donkey-engines were hurrying the misassorted outfits skyward. On either side of the steamer, rows of scows received the flying cargo, and on each of these scows a sweating mob of men charged the descending slings and heaved bales and boxes about in frantic search. Men waved shipping receipts and shouted over the steamer-rails to them. Sometimes two and three identified the same article, and war arose. The “two-circle” and the “circle-and-dot” brands caused endless jangling, while every whipsaw discovered a dozen claimants.
“The purser insists that he is going mad,” the first officer said, as he helped Frona Welse down the gangway to the landing stage, “and the freight clerks have turned the cargo over to the passengers and quit work. But we’re not so unlucky as the Star of Bethlehem,” he reassured her, pointing to a steamship at
anchor a quarter of a mile away. “Half of her passengers have pack-horses for Skaguay and White Pass, and the other half are bound over the Chilcoot. So they’ve mutinied and everything’s at a standstill.”
“Hey, you!” he cried, beckoning to a Whitehall which hovered discreetly on the outer rim of the floating confusion.
A tiny launch, pulling heroically at a huge tow-barge, attempted to pass between; but the boatman shot nervily across her bow, and just as he was clear, unfortunately, caught a crab. This slewed the boat around and brought it to a stop.
“Watch out!” the first officer shouted.
A pair of seventy-foot canoes, loaded with outfits, gold-rushers, and Indians, and under full sail, drove down from the counter direction. One of them veered sharply towards the landing stage, but the other pinched the Whitehall against the barge. The boatman had unshipped his oars in time, but his small craft groaned under the pressure and threatened to collapse. Whereat he came to his feet, and in short, nervous phrases consigned all canoe-men and launch-captains to eternal perdition. A man on the barge leaned over from above and baptized him with crisp and crackling oaths, while the whites and Indians in the canoe laughed derisively.
“Aw, g’wan!” one of them shouted. “Why don’t yeh learn to row?”
The boatman’s fist landed on the point of his critic’s jaw and dropped him stunned upon the heaped merchandise. Not content with this summary act he proceeded to follow his fist into the other craft. The miner nearest him tugged vigorously at a revolver which had jammed in its shiny leather holster, while his brother argonauts, laughing, waited the outcome.