On a certain May afternoon, Tom Jessop, assigned to "cover" the Seattle waterfront for his paper, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, had his curiosity aroused by a craft that lay at the Spring Street dock. The vessel was newly painted, trim and trig in appearance and was seemingly of about two thousand tons register. Amidships was a single yellow funnel. From the aftermost of the two masts fluttered a blue flag with a square of white in the center. The reporter knew that this was the "Blue Peter," flown in token that the steamer was about to sail.
But the steamer, which bore the name of Northerner, flew no house flag to indicate the line she belonged to, nor in the shipping news of the day did her name appear. The reporter scented a "story" at once. From some hangerson about the dock he found out that the strange craft had formerly been the James K. Thompson, of San Francisco, in the coastwise trade. She had been refitted and equipped at the Aetna Iron Works by her purchaser, a Mr. Chisholm Dacre. That was all that the longshoremen could tell him.
On the bridge was a stalwart form in a goldlaced cap indicating the rank of captain. By his side stood a well-built man of middle age with a crisp iron-gray beard neatly clipped and a sunburned face, from which two keen blue eyes twinkled quizzically as he gazed down at the figure of the reporter on the dock.
"Are you Mr. Dacre?" hailed the reporter, guessing that the bearded man was the Northerner'snew owner.
"That is my name. What can I do for you?" was the rejoinder.
"My name is Jessop. Ship-news man for the Post-Intelligencer. Can I come on board?"
"I am afraid not, Mr. Jessop," rejoined Mr. Dacre, whom our readers know as the Bungalow Boys' uncle. "What do you want?"
"Why, your destination, the object of your voyage and so forth."
"That will have to remain my private property for the time being," was the reply in a kindly tone. "I appreciate your keenness in looking for news, but I cannot divulge what you would like to know just now."
"It's no time for visiting, anyhow," said the sailor-like man at Mr. Dacre's side, who Tom Jessop had guessed was the skipper of the mysterious craft, "we'll soon be getting under way."
The young reporter's face grew fiery red.
"What line are you?" he demanded. "What's the game, anyway?"
"I am not at liberty to answer questions."
"Private craft, eh? Tramp?"
There was almost a sneer in his tones as he spoke. He was trying to make the captain angry and by that means get him to talk. But the other remained quite unruffled.
"Not in trade at all."
"Pleasure trip, eh? Why can't I come aboard?"
Just then, and before the young newsgatherer could vent his indignation further a cab came rattling up the dock and disgorged at the foot of the Northerner's gangplank three brightfaced, happy-looking lads. They were Tom and Jack Dacre and their inseparable chum, Sandy MacTavish, the voluble Scotch youth whose "thatch" and freckles gave him his nickname. Jack was Tom's junior by two years, but he was almost as muscular and tall as his brother. Both lads were nephews of Mr. Dacre, who had given them their home in the Sawmill Valley of Maine where they had acquired the name of "Bungalow Boys," by which they were known to a large circle of friends.
Tom Jessop turned from the captain to the new arrivals.
"Where is this vessel bound?" he asked.
"She clears this afternoon for Alaska," responded Tom Dacre.
The reporter's eye flashed a look of triumph upward at the bridge.
"In the northern trade?" he asked.
"I didn't say that," was the quiet rejoinder.
Tom Jessop began to get mad in good earnest. He swept his eyes over the ship's decks. Amidships she carried an odd-looking pile of timber and metal.
"A small steamer in sections, eh?" he questioned with a knowing look.
"You're right as to that," spoke Tom.
"Going gold dredging?"
"I can't say."
"Training ship for kids, maybe?"
"Well, I know some folks who might take lessons in good manners without its hurting them a bit," flashed Jack angrily.
The reporter changed his tone to a more conciliatory one.
"You might help a fellow out," he said. "What are your names?"
"I guess we can tell you that much," said Tom. "I am Tom Dacre, this is my brother, Jack, and this is our friend, Mr. MacTavish."
The good-natured Sandy broke into a grin at this formal introduction. He was about to speak, but the reporter interrupted him.
"Dacre!" he exclaimed. "You're the kids that broke up that gang of Chinese smugglers on the Sound a while ago!"
"You're unco canny to guess it," said Sandy. "We're the boys."
At this instant another figure appeared on the bridge – a tall man with rough-looking clothes and a battered derby hat. It was the pilot. He addressed Mr. Dacre.
"The tide serves, sir. If you are all ready, we'll get under way."
"Come, boys," hailed Mr. Dacre from the bridge. "Time to get aboard."
The three lads hastily gathered up the few packages that they had been purchasing at the last moment. The cabman was paid and they bounded with elastic strides up the gangway. As they reached the end of it, the stern lines were cast off.
"Let go breast and bow lines," bawled the foghorn voice of the pilot.
The order was quickly executed. Jessop shouted something, but his voice was drowned in the three mournful blasts of her siren that were the Northerner's farewell to Seattle. But the instant the whistle ceased and the tug that was to tow the Northerner into the stream began to puff energetically, he found his voice again.
"S-a-y!" he shouted across the widening breach between the steamer and the dock.
"Hullo!" hailed back Tom, who, with his two companions, stood at the rail amidships watching the city they were leaving.
"Won't you tell me anything about this trip?"
"That's just it," hurled back Tom at the top of his voice, "we don't know ourselves!"
"Well, I'll be jiggered!" exclaimed Tom Jessop as he turned away from the dock and the moving vessel, which he now felt certain held a mystery within her gray steel sides.
It was hardly surprising that the ship-news reporter had instantly recognized the Bungalow Boys when he heard their names. Their exploits in many quarters had received numerous columns of newspaper space, much to their amusement. The clever manner in which they had broken up forever the operations of the gang of counterfeiters in the Sawmill Valley, as related in the first volume of this series, "The Bungalow Boys," had brought them before the public. Further interesting "copy" had been made by their wonderful adventures in search of a sunken treasure galleon. Readers of this series were given full details of that adventurous voyage on the surface and below the ocean, in the second volume dealing with our young friends' experiences, which was called "The Bungalow Boys Marooned in the Tropics."
In the third volume we followed them throughout their venturesome doings in the northwest. "The Bungalow Boys in the Great Northwest" showed how pluck and self-reliance can win out even against such a combination as the boys found in the "Chinese runners." The fourth volume dealt with their voyage on the Great Lakes. The mysteries of Castle Rock Island, the ways of the wreckers who captured the lads, and the daring manner in which the boys escaped from the ruined lighthouse, all were set forth in the book in question, which bore the title, "The Bungalow Boys on the Great Lakes."
Now the Bungalow Boys found themselves setting forth on a voyage to the Northland on board a fine, staunch steamer. That adventures and possibly perils lay ahead of them they could not doubt; but just what the object of the voyage was, had not been revealed to them.
Tom had stuck to the strict truth when he told the reporter that he did not know anything about the voyage. His uncle had merely invited Jack and himself to take a "sea voyage." At the lad's solicitation, Sandy had been allowed to make one of the party. Of course, the boys would not have been taken from their studies to make this trip, but the headmaster of the academy that they all attended had been taken very ill a short time before and the school had been temporarily closed.
The pilot had been dropped and the Northerner was in free sea room, forging ahead through the great swells of the ocean. The steamer appeared oddly silent. There were no passengers rushing about, no bustle and confusion. The voyage had begun as unobtrusively as the departure from the dock. The small crew moved about under the direction of a mate, setting things to rights, coiling ropes and making everything snug. On the bridge were Captain Goodrich and Mr. Dacre. Presently a third person joined them – a man of massive build with crisply curling hair and a big beard. This was Colton Chillingworth, the rancher friend of Mr. Dacre, whose Washington ranch had formed the scene of some of the boys' most exciting adventures in the northwest.
"Where are we headed for?" asked Jack, as the three lads stood at the stern of the steamer watching the white wake that was rolling outward from the vessel's counter at a twelve-knot gait.
"Bang for the Straits of San Juan de Fuca. I heard the captain tell the pilot so when we dropped him," replied Tom.
On one side of the steamer were the picturesque, snow-capped Selkirks, on the other the Olympics, calm and majestic in the afternoon light. Along the shore were small settlements fringing the deep woods. Above all towered Mount Rainier, sharply chiseled against the sky. The pearly whiteness of its eternal snow-cap glistened in the sunlight like a field of diamonds.
Broken at intervals by cliffs of chalk, white or dark brown stone, immense forests of somber green fir and cedar stretched from the hills almost to the water's edge. Here and there a cascading stream like a silver thread could be seen dashing its troubled way down the steep mountainside. It was a beautiful, impressive sight, and the boys felt it so as they gazed. But uppermost in their minds was the question of the object of the trip, of its destination. In this regard they were not to be left long in the dark.
"And after the Straits?"
The question came from the Scotch boy.
"Northward, I guess, to Alaska. That's positively all we know," came from Jack.
"Awell, we're entitled to a guess, I ken," hazarded Sandy. "Suppose we are going pole hunting?"
"Looking for the north pole," responded the other stoutly, while Tom and Jack exploded with laughter.
"Nonsense," said Tom. "Uncle Chisholm has too much sound common sense to go off on a wild goose chase like that."
"Anyhow, the pole has been found," quoth Jack in tones of finality.
"You can be sure of one thing at least," put in Tom; "whatever we are after, the whole expedition has been carefully thought out. That steamer on the upper deck, for instance."
"She's all in numbered sections to be put together when we get ready," said Jack. "Doesn't that suggest something to you?"
"How do you mean?" questioned Tom in his turn.
"Just this. In my opinion, we are going to ascend some river."
"But what for?"
"Ah! that's just what we shan't know till they choose to tell us."
"Hoot, mon," exclaimed Sandy, "gie ower guessing! We'll ken all aboot it in gude time. In the meanwhile, we're three mighty lucky boys to have a chance to make such a trip."
"Them's my sentiments," coincided Tom heartily.
They looked seaward. The air had a sharp brisk tang in it, a veritable sea tonic that braced and invigorated. The waves were choppy and as the Northerner steamed onward through them, from time to time a glistening cloud of spray was hurled high above her sharp bow. From her funnel poured a column of wind-whipped black smoke, showing that coal was not being spared to drive her along at her best gait.
"Oh, but this is great!" exclaimed Jack, pulling off his cap and letting the wind blow through his tousled hair.
"One thing is certain, this is no idle cruise. There's an object in it," said Tom, "and I reckon that we boys are due to play a part in whatever enterprise is on hand."
"Well, I hope we make good, whatever it is," said Jack.
"Nae fear o' that," spoke up Sandy confidently.
The Northerner arose on a higher swell than usual, and then with a sidewise motion settled glidingly down into a watery hollow, rising the next instant on the crest of another roller. Her masts swept the sky in broad arcs. All at once Sandy released his hold on the rail and slid half across the deck before he brought up. His face had suddenly grown very pale. His freckles stood out on it in bright relief.
"What's the matter?" demanded Jack, noticing the woe-begone expression of his friend's face.
"Um?" inquired Sandy. "Matter? Naething's the matter, mon. O-h-h-h-h!"
"Seasick, eh? That's the last meal you ate ashore. I warned you against all that pie."
"Don't talk of pie," he groaned.
Just as Tom was about to suggest that Sandy go to his stateroom and lie down for a while, the second mate approached them.
"You young gentlemen are to go to the charthouse. Mr. Dacre says he has something to tell you."
The boys exchanged glances. Even Sandy forgot his woes in the interest aroused by this communication. The officer walked on aft while Tom exclaimed in a low tone:
"At last we'll find out where we are bound, and what for. Come on, Jack."
"How about me?" inquired Sandy.
"Thought you were seasick."
"I was," rejoined Sandy, "but, mon, I feel grond again. If Mr. Dacre is going to talk, I'm a weel boy the noo."
Both Mr. Dacre and his companion, Colton Chillingworth, regarded the boys smilingly as the latter filed into the charthouse, wide-eyed with expectation at the news they were confident they were to hear.
"Well," began Mr. Dacre, "I suppose you young men are anxious to know a good deal more about this voyage than you have yet been told?"
"Anxious is no word for it," rejoined Tom. "Sandy has even forgotten seasickness so that he can hear what you have to tell us."
"It will not take long. Mr. Chillingworth, here, is my partner in the enterprise on which we are bound. We are going to Alaska in search of foxes."
Had Mr. Dacre said that they were going to the moon in search of green cheese, the boys could not have looked more astonished.
"Foxes!" exclaimed Tom. "Just common foxes?"
"By no means. The kind we are after are silver grays and blacks. Mr. Chillingworth and I have decided to start raising them on his ranch. When I tell you that a good skin of a silver fox is worth anywhere from twenty-five hundred dollars upward, you will see why we have spent so much in equipping this expedition and chartering this steamer. You will wonder why we did not embark on a regular passenger steamer. For many reasons. One was that we could not care properly for such valuable and timid animals on a regular craft. Another was that we do not want any details of our plans to leak out till the business is well established. Such creatures as silver foxes might well tempt unscrupulous persons to steal or kill them, so that on all considerations, it was deemed best to charter this craft, which we managed to get cheap, and to form our own expedition."
"What country are we going to hunt for the foxes in?" asked Tom, his eyes shining at the prospect before them. The other boys looked equally excited and delighted.
"Along the Yukon River," was the reply. "That is why that light draught portable steam launch is on deck."
"How long shall we be gone?" came the next question.
"That is impossible to say. If we do not 'get out,' as they call it, before the winter sets in, we may have to remain in the north till the spring."
The boys exchanged delighted glances.
"The prospect appears to please you," said Mr. Chillingworth.
"Please us!" cried Tom. "We're tickled to death."
"Well, I think you will have an instructive and, I hope, a pleasant time," said Mr. Dacre, "and at the same time be useful to us. Both Mr. Chillingworth and myself have been in the Yukon country before, and I can assure you that it won't be all picnicking. It is a wild country we are going to. North of fifty-three lies one of the few really wild territories left in the world. It's a great chance for you boys to show what you are made of."
Soon afterward the boys left the charthouse, half wild with excitement. The lure of the north was upon them. Each hastily went over in his mind all that he could recall about the land for which they were bound. There was magic in the name of Yukon, that mighty river of frozen lands, whose course winds through golden sands and solitudes undisturbed by the foot of man.
"Fellows, it seems too good to be true," exclaimed Jack warmly. "It's the chance of a lifetime."
"We'll have lots of good hunting. I'm glad we brought our rifles," said Jack.
"Maybe we'll find gold!" exclaimed Sandy.
"Well, at the market rate for silver and black foxes, a few of them would be as good as a gold mine," declared Tom.
"But who ever heard of raising foxes to sell?" objected Jack.
"Foxes wi' siller coats, too!" added Sandy incredulously.
"Don't try to be funny, Sandy," struck in Tom. "It appeals to me as a great business and one with lots of possibilities in it for the future."
"Well, it seems at any rate that we are going to get plenty of fun out of it," declared Jack. "I wouldn't much mind if we did get stuck up north for the winter. It would be a great experience."
The gong for dinner cut short their chat, and they hastened to their cabins to get ready for the meal. As the Northerner had once been a passenger steamer, she was well provided with cabins, and each boy had a well-equipped stateroom on the main deck. Their elders occupied cabins forward of midships, and on the opposite side of the superstructure the captain, his two mates and the engineers had their quarters.
They entered the dining saloon to find it a handsomely fitted white and gold affair, a relic of the passenger-carrying days of their ship. Electric lights gleamed down on the table and the boys, when joined by their elders, set to with sharp appetites on a meal excellently cooked and served by two Chinese stewards. As they ate, the object of the trip was, of course, the main topic of conversation, and Mr. Dacre gave them much valuable information concerning the country whither they were bound. As we shall accompany the boys in their own experiences "north of fifty-three," there is no need to set down here all that the enthusiastic man told his eager young listeners.
Absorbed in the wonders which were being described, the two Bungalow Boys and Sandy MacTavish sat late at the table, listening to accounts of the great river for which they were bound, of the flaming volcanoes of the Aleutian Archipelago, of the seal poachers, the midnight sun and the vast undeveloped riches of Uncle Sam's northerly possession. The thought that soon they would be up there themselves, participating in the marvelous life of which they had heard, sent them to bed in anything but restful moods. It was long before they slept, and then their dreams were of the most jumbled description, in which huge bears and other denizens of the wild figured, together with golden rivers and snow-capped mountains.
When they awakened and hastily dressed, it was to find the Northerner out of sight of land and rolling briskly along in a sea flecked with white-caps. Ahead of the ship flashed the wet backs of a school of porpoises, seemingly intent on a race with the Northerner. The boys watched them with interest, although they were no novelty to them, many such schools having been encountered during their cruise in the tropics. But there was, nevertheless, a fascination in watching the sportive creatures as they rolled and tumbled along, from time to time leaping right out of the water and showing their black, glistening bodies.
"This is the life for me," exclaimed Jack. "How is the seasickness, Sandy?"
The sandy-haired youth gave him a reproachful look.
"I dinna ken what you mean," he said. "I wonder how soon breakfast will be ready?"
"You're cured, all right," chuckled Tom. "But glorious as all this is, I can hardly wait till we get that steamer together and go chugging up the Yukon into the heart of Alaska."
"I guess we all subscribe to that," echoed Jack with enthusiasm. Just then the breakfast gong boomed out its summons.
"I'll beat you to the table!" shouted Jack. The challenge was accepted and off they all dashed, while the long silent decks of the converted Northerner rang with their shouts of merriment.
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