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Benny Alden leaned against the rail of the ferry. He threw bread crumbs at the swooping gulls. One gull almost landed on the rail next to him.
"Whoa!" Jessie, his older sister, gently pulled Benny back. "I bet that bird is as hungry as you are!" At twelve, Jessie was always looking out for her six-year-old brother.
"I am hungry, but I wanted to feed the birds first," said Benny.
"Ready for lunch?" Jessie asked. Just then a spray of bracing sea mist stung their faces, making them laugh.
"You bet!" Benny followed Jessie across the ferry deck and into the warm dining cabin.
"There you are," said Henry. He was fourteen, the oldest of the Alden children. "We ordered hot chocolate."
"Thanks," said Jessie. "Brrr! It's cold out there!"
James Alden, the children's grandfather, nodded. "It usually is on the water, even in the spring. This far north, it rarely gets hot. Not like back home in Connecticut."
Violet, who was ten, watched seabirds flying past the large square windows. "I can't believe we'll be in Alaska in just a little while!" She patted the camera bag hanging on the back of her chair. "I plan to take lots of pictures."
"I hope I see a polar bear," said Benny. He was trying to read the menu. He didn't know many words, but he could read hamburger and ice cream.
Grandfather chuckled. "I doubt we'll see one in Skagway. Polar bears live farther north."
"Skagway!" Benny laughed. "What a funny name!"
Their waiter came by their table. "Alaska is full of odd names," he said, setting down mugs of hot chocolate. "Skagway was once just a shack owned by a man named Moore. But then the sourdoughs came and called the place Skagway, after the Skagway River."
"Sourdoughs?" asked Jessie. "Isn't that a bread?"
The waiter nodded. "Yes. The early prospectors made that bread in the mining camps. Life was hard for those tough old gold hunters. That's why people called them sourdoughs."
"Gold hunters?" Benny said with awe. "I want to hunt gold!"
"Let's eat first," Grandfather said after ordering burgers for all.
"And wait for our ferry to dock in Skagway," Violet said. "You won't find much gold until we get to Alaska!"
So far it had been a whirlwind trip. First they flew from their home in Greenfield, Connecticut, to Seattle, Washington. That was all the way across the country! Then they took a bus to Bellingham. Big boats, little boats, and ferries were anchored at the pier in the port city.
"I like this ferry," Benny remarked when their food arrived. He bit into the juicy burger. "It's like our boxcar. Only with a boat on the bottom."
"That's a good observation, Benny," Henry said. "The ferry is like a floating boxcar."
The Alden children never forgot their first home. Their parents had died and they were alone. They had heard about a grandfather, but were afraid he was mean. So they found an empty boxcar in the woods and lived in it.
Then Grandfather found them. He wasn't mean at all, but kind and very glad to have four grandchildren. He brought the boxcar to his big house in Greenfield. Since then, the children had had many adventures.
And now they were starting a new one.
"Tell us again why we're going to Alaska," Violet said excitedly. She loved Grandfather's stories.
"Many years ago my great-uncle Edward Alden came here to be a prospector," began Grandfather. "When gold was discovered, thousands of people caught 'gold fever.'"
"Were they sick?" Benny wanted to know.
Henry shook his head. "That's just an expression."
"People were in a fever to find gold," Grandfather added. "Edward worked as a clerk in the family business. He was a young man who craved excitement. So he took a train to Seattle and then boarded a boat to Skagway."
"Just like we're doing," Jessie commented.
"Only Edward's boat was loaded with hundreds of passengers who wanted to find gold, too," Grandfather continued. "On the boat, Edward met two other men. They became friends. When they landed in Skagway, the little town was jammed with people! Edward and his new friends met another man. The four decided to stick together."
"Did they find gold?" asked Violet.
"Yes, they did," replied Grandfather. "But they had to walk a long way to the goldfields. Then they had to find enough gold in one place to stake a claim. When they found gold, they marked their claim with four rocks, so no one else could dig at their spot. My great-uncle carried a camera with him. He also kept a diary. When the men finished working their claim, they headed back to Skagway."
"I wouldn't have left," Benny put in. "I would have dug and dug till I found all the gold in the world!"
"You would have been pretty tired of the cold," said Grandfather. "And the hard work."
"What happened when the men got to Skagway?" Jessie asked.
"They turned in their gold for cash," Grandfather replied. "Then the Four Rock Miners, as they called themselves, went home."
"Were they rich?" Henry wanted to know.
"I doubt it," Grandfather answered. "The men had excitement and adventure. After being a sourdough, Uncle Edward came back to his old job as a clerk in Connecticut."
"That doesn't sound very exciting," said Benny, dipping a french fry in ketchup.
Grandfather smiled. "Even though the men had to go back to their ordinary lives, they stayed in touch. Every year the Four Rock Miners met in Skagway."
"Like a family reunion," said Jessie.
"Exactly," said Grandfather. "The men talked about the time they spent in the goldfields. Year after year, they relived their adventures. It became a tradition."
A voice beside Grandfather's chair said, "And that's why we're here."
Jessie turned to see a young couple. The sandy-haired man wore khaki pants and a thick blue sweater. Next to him stood a pretty dark-haired woman. She also wore khaki pants, but her sweater was red. The color made her cheeks pink and her blue eyes bluer.
The young man had spoken. He continued, "I'm sorry to break into your conversation. But my wife and I couldn't help overhearing—"
Now Grandfather rose from his chair. "You must be Steve Wilson! I'm James Alden, Edward Alden's great-nephew."
"I figured as much," said Steve. "This is Jennifer. We've only been married a month."
Jennifer held Steve's hand. "We decided to make the reunion our honeymoon."
"How nice," said James Alden. "These are my grandchildren—Henry, Jessie, Violet, and Benny. This is the first time I've brought them to Alaska."
Benny was confused. "Are you guys going to hunt gold, too?"
"I didn't finish explaining," said Grandfather. "You see, even after the original Four Rock Miners died, their relatives continued the tradition of meeting in Skagway."
"I'm the great-great-grandson of Frank Wilson," Steve said. "He was one of the men Edward Alden met on the boat to Alaska." Then he added, "Your grandfather wrote to each of us, setting up the reunion date."
Jennifer sat down in the empty seat next to Jessie. "I think this is so wonderful. The way the men went to Skagway every year, no matter what."
"There were four men," Henry said. "Where are the relatives of the other two?"
Grandfather signaled the waiter for the bill. "They are waiting at our hotel. We'll meet them there."
The waiter came over. "We'll be docking shortly. You might want to go see Alaska come into view, the way the old miners did."
Everyone slipped windbreakers over their sweaters and went outside on the deck. Gray waves slapped the sides of the ferry.
Benny's sharp eyes spotted land first.
"There it is!" he cried. "Alaska, here we come!"
Everyone was so excited about seeing the faraway state, they remained on deck the rest of the trip, even though it was chilly.
When the ferry docked at Skagway, the Aldens saw a huge cruise ship farther down the beach. Then they were busy hauling their luggage off the ferry. Grandfather called a taxi. The Wilsons followed in a separate cab.
"This is Broadway," their driver informed the Aldens. "It's the main street in town."
Jessie was amazed at the storefronts. "It looks like an old Western movie!"
Their driver laughed. "Skagway was like an old Western movie! Here you are." He pulled up in front of a rustic-looking building with a sign that read THE TOTEM LODGE.
The kids piled out of the cab. A bellhop hurried through the swinging door to take their bags.
Inside the lobby, Grandfather went over to the main desk.
"What a neat place!" Henry exclaimed.
The Totem Lodge was like a big log cabin. A real canoe with hidden lights hung overhead. Native American masks and gold-mining spades and other tools decorated the walls. Massive poles with strange carvings guarded the doorway into the dining room.
The lobby was warm, with potted plants, chairs, and drum-shaped tables scattered around. From one of those chairs, a silver-haired woman got up and approached Grandfather.
"You must be James Alden," the children heard her say. The woman, neatly dressed in green slacks and a leaf-green sweater, stuck out her hand. "I'm Madeline Parker."
"Miss Parker, I'm delighted to meet you in person!" said Grandfather. He introduced his grandchildren, adding, "This is their first time to Alaska."
"Mine, too," Miss Parker confessed. "I'm so thrilled. I'm a retired teacher. It's wonderful to be able to travel. By the way, I'm the great-niece of Pete Blake."
"Was he one of the old miners?" asked Violet.
"Yes. My great-uncle met the other three men in town." She held up a gray leather tote bag. "The important items are right here!"
Violet was about to ask what the important items were when Steve and Jennifer Wilson walked up to the desk to sign in. The bellhop who handled the Aldens' luggage was now stacking the Wilsons' bags nearby.
At that moment, a man, leading a woman and two teenagers, barged up to the front desk and complained loudly, "Are you the manager? Our room is cold!"
The desk clerk replied, "I'll see to your room, Mr. Pittman. Now, Mr. Wilson, if you'll just—"
"And more towels," the woman interrupted rudely. "How do you expect a family to get by on four measly towels?"
"I'll take care of it," said the clerk, "as soon as I've checked in this party."
"See to it you do," Mr. Pittman said.
The teenagers walked over to where the Alden children were waiting. Both were blond and freckled.
"Hi," said Henry. "I'm Henry. These are my sisters, Jessie and Violet. And this is my brother, Benny"
"I'm Monique," said the girl sullenly. Jessie guessed she was fifteen. "And this is my brother, Mark."
"Have you been here before?" Jessie asked. The kids acted awfully bored.
"No." Monique yawned. "Our parents dragged us here. Some stupid reunion thing."
"We're here for that, too!" said Violet.
"Yippee," Mark said. "Who cares what some old guys did in this boring place?"
Jessie and Violet looked at each other. How could anybody find Alaska boring?
Grandfather was tipping the bellhop, who had loaded his cart with their bags.
"Your reunion party has the entire third floor," said the bellhop, whose name tag read HOWIE. "I'll take you to your rooms now."
Upstairs, Howie showed them into three rooms: one each for the girls and the boys. Grandfather's private room was next to the boys'.
"Now," said Grandfather. "Unpack quickly and freshen up. It'll soon be time for the second part of the tradition."
"What is that?" Benny asked.
Grandfather winked. "You'll just have to wait, Benny Alden. Grandfathers can have secrets, too!"
The Ghost of the Golden North
"Where are we going?" asked Benny. Grandfather had instructed the children to put on their best outfits.
Henry pulled Benny's yellow sweater from his suitcase. "Jessie said to wear this with those pants." From his own suitcase, he found his navy sweater with red stripes. "All I know is, we're going someplace fancy."
There was a knock at the door. Benny opened it. His sisters were already dressed.
"You look nice," he told them.
"Thanks." Jessie was wearing a pleated blue skirt with a matching sweater.
Violet had on a pink jumper and her favorite pink-flowered blouse. "Grandfather's waiting for us downstairs."
The children flew down the steps and into the lobby. There, Grandfather was chatting with Miss Parker and the Wilsons. Everyone was dressed nicely, except for the Pittman family, who still wore jeans and sweatshirts. The Aldens had learned from Grandfather that Earl Pittman was distantly related to Harold Bell, the second man Edward Alden had met on the boat going to Skagway.
"We're too tired to dress up," whined Edie Pittman. She leaned against one of the carved poles.
"Yeah," said Mark. "What's the big deal, anyway?"
Grandfather led them all toward the front door. "You'll see," he said mysteriously.
Outside it was nearly dark. The wind was brisk off the nearby waterfront. Jessie was glad she had made everyone take a coat.
Monique walked beside her and Violet. "Where are we going?"
"I don't know," Violet replied. "It's not like Grandfather to be this mysterious."
"But he's enjoying it," Jessie said, smiling. "I can tell."
"Well, I'm not," Monique said sourly. "I wanted to order room service. It's cold out here."
"We're in Alaska," Violet said. "It's supposed to be cold." She wondered why the older girl only had on a sweatshirt. As Grandfather had warned them, springtime in the northernmost state could still be chilly.
They trooped down Broadway with other groups of tourists. Excitement crackled in the crisp air. Shop windows glittered with souvenirs, and old-time music bubbled from restaurants. People laughed and talked.
Grandfather stopped at the corner of Broadway and Third Street in front of a building called the Golden North Hotel.
"Here we are," declared James Alden. "This is the oldest hotel in Alaska. Every year the Four Rock Miners met here. And this is where we hold part of our reunion."
A blast of cold air swept them all inside.
Jessie gasped. Above her head arched a golden dome. The lobby was richly decorated with red velvet chairs and curved-back sofas. Antique mirrors with gilt frames hung on the walls. Heavy drapes covered the windows, but twinkling lamps in glass shades threw off an inviting glow.
"Wow!" breathed Benny. "This is the fanciest place I've ever seen!"
Grandfather laughed. "Yes, it is fancy. The hotel was built in 1898 during the Gilded Age, a very fancy time in our history."
"The Golden North has been restored to its original splendor," added Miss Parker. "The antiques are authentic. And it even has a ghost!"
"A ghost!" Benny exclaimed, looking around. "Where?"
"Can we eat?" Mark broke in. "Or are we going to stand around all night?"
"I believe our table is ready," Grandfather said as the headwaiter came up to them.
Their group was escorted to a large white-clothed table in the back, away from the other diners. The dining room was as grand as the lobby. Violet wished she had brought her sketchbook. She loved to draw interesting places.
Menus were passed around.
"Too expensive!" Earl Pittman complained loudly.
"Well, we won't have to eat here after tonight," James Alden told the other man. "The original miners stayed here, you know. And this is where they ate dinner."
"They weren't feeding a family of four," Earl grumbled.
"We should thank James for arranging this trip," said Miss Parker. "Making the reservations at the Totem Lodge, having this special table here."
"The Totem Lodge is cold," Edie Pittman argued. "I wish we were staying somewhere else."
"But we have the entire floor of that hotel," Miss Parker said. "It's perfect for a reunion."
Monique closed her menu with a disgusted sigh. "There isn't one single thing on here I like!"
Henry wondered why the Pittmans were so disagreeable. It seemed as if nothing pleased them. Henry certainly liked his food when it came—a delicious salmon burger.
Over dessert, Grandfather explained more about the purpose of the reunion.
"As I mentioned in my letters to all of you," he began, "I'm the only one of us who has been attending the reunions for some years."
"My aunt used to come," said Miss Parker. "But she's too ill for such a long journey."
Grandfather nodded. "Our relatives who have been making the trip are either too elderly or have health problems. So you all are new to the tradition."
Steve and Jennifer Wilson held hands across the table. "I love it here," said Jennifer. "It's so romantic."
Excerpted from "The Mystery of the Black Raven"
Copyright © 1996 Albert Whitman & Company.
Excerpted by permission of Albert Whitman & Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1. Grandfather's Secret,
2. The Ghost of the Golden North,
3. "One of Us Is a Thief!",
4. Mystery Within a Mystery,
5. Miss Parker's Clue,
6. Panning for Gold,
7. The Missing Scrapbook,
8. Great-uncle Edward's Message,
9. The Raven Speaks,
10. Benny's Mystery Within a Mystery,