By Bret Harte
I had been two years in California before I ever thought of going to the mines, and my initiation into the vocation of gold digging was partly compulsory. The little pioneer settlement school, of which I was the somewhat youthful and, I fear, the not over-competent master, was state-aided only to a limited extent; and as the bulk of its expense was borne by a few families in its vicinity, when two of them,representing perhaps a dozen children or pupils,one morning announced their intention of moving to a more prosperous and newer district, the school was incontinently closed.
In twenty-four hours I found myself destitute alike of my flock and my vocation. I am afraid I regretted the former the most. Some of the children I had made my companions and friends; and as I stood that bright May morning before the empty little bark-thatched schoolhouse in the wilderness, it was with an odd sensation that our little summer "play" at being schoolmaster and pupil was over. Indeed, I remember distinctly that a large hunk of gingerbread,a parting gift from a prize scholar a year older than myself,stood me in good stead in my future wanderings, for I was alone in the world at that moment and constitutionally improvident.
I had been frightfully extravagant even on my small income, spending much money on "boiled shirts" and giving as an excuse, which I since believe was untenable, that I ought to set an example in dress to my pupils. The result was that at this crucial moment I had only seven dollars in my pocket, five of which went to the purchase of a second-hand revolver, that I felt was necessary to signalize my abandonment of a peaceful vocation for one of greed and adventure.
For I had finally resolved to go to the mines and become a gold-digger. Other occupations and my few friends in San Francisco were expensively distant. The nearest mining district was forty miles away; the nearest prospect of aid was the hope of finding a miner whom I had casually met in San Francisco, and whom I shall call "Jim." With only this name upon my lips I expected, like the deserted Eastern damsel in the ballad, to find my friend among the haunts of mining men. But my capital of two dollars would not allow the expense of stage-coach fare; I must walk to the mines, and I did.
I cannot clearly recall how I did it. The end of my first day's journey found me with blistered feet and the conviction that varnished leather shoes, however proper for the Master of Madrono Valley School in the exercise of his functions, were not suited to him when he was itinerant. Nevertheless, I clung to them as the last badge of my former life, carrying them in my hands when pain and pride made me at last forsake the frequented highway to travel barefooted in the trails.
I am afraid that my whole equipment was rather incongruous, and I remember that the few travelers I met on the road glanced at me with curiosity and some amusement. The odds and ends of my "pack",a faded morocco dressing-case, an early gift from my mother, and a silver-handled riding-whip, also a gift,in juxtaposition with my badly rolled, coarse blue blanket and tin coffee-pot, were sufficiently provocative. My revolver, too, which would not swing properly in its holster from my hip, but worked around until it hung down in front like a Highlander's dirk, gave me considerable mortification.
A sense of pride, which kept me from arriving at my friend's cabin utterly penniless, forbade my seeking shelter and food at a wayside station. I ate the remainder of my gingerbread, and camped out in the woods. To preclude any unnecessary sympathy, I may add that I was not at all hungry and had no sense of privation.
The loneliness that had once or twice come over me in meeting strangers on the traveled road, with whom I was too shy and proud to converse, vanished utterly in the sweet and silent companionship of the woods. I believe I should have felt my solitary vagabond condition greater in a strange hostelry or a crowded cabin. I heard the soft breathings of the lower life in the grass and ferns around me, saw the grave, sleepy stars above my head, and slept soundly, quite forgetting the pain of my blistered feet, or the handkerchiefs I had sacrificed for bandages.
In the morning, finding that I had emptied my water flask, I also found that I had utterly overlooked the first provision of camping,nearness to a water supply,,
I kept out of the main road as much as possible that day, although my detours cost me some extra walking, and by this time my bandaged feet had accumulated so much of the red dust that I suppose it would have been difficult to say what I wore on them. But in these excursions the balsamic air of the pines always revived me; the reassuring changes of scenery and distance viewed from those mountain ridges, the most wonderful I had ever seen, kept me in a state of excitement, and there was an occasional novelty of "outcrop " in the rocky trail that thrilled me with mysterious anticipation.
For this outcropa strange, white, porcelain-like rock, glinting like a tooth thrust through the red soilwas quartz, which I had been told indicated the vicinity of the gold-bearing district. Following these immaculate finger-posts, I came at about sunset upon a mile-long slope of pines still baking in the western glare, and beyond it, across an unfathomable abyss, a shelf in the opposite mountain-side, covered with white tents, looking not unlike the quartz outcrop I have spoken of. It was "the diggings"!
I do not know what I had expected, but I was conscious of some bitter disappointment. As I gazed, the sun sank below the serried summit of the slope on which I stood; a great shadow seemed to steal up rather than down the mountain, the tented shelf faded away, and a score of tiny diamond points of light, like stars, took its place. A cold wind rushed down the mountain-side, and I shivered in my thin clothes, drenched with the sweat of my day-long tramp.It was nine o'clock when I reached the mining camp, itself only a fringe of the larger settlement beyond, and I had been on my feet since sunrise. Nevertheless, I halted at the outskirts, deposited my pack in the bushes, bathed my feet in a sluice of running water, so stained with the soil that it seemed to run blood, and, putting on my dreadful varnished shoes again, limped once more into respectability and the first cabin.
Here I found that my friend "Jim" was one of four partners on the "Gum Tree" claim, two miles on the other side of the settlement. There was nothing left for me but to push on to the "Magnolia Hotel," procure the cheapest refreshment and an hour's rest, and then limp as best I could to the "Gum Tree " claim.I found the "Magnolia " a large wooden building, given over, in greater part, to an enormous drinking "saloon," filled with flashing mirrors and a mahogany bar. In the unimportant and stuffy little dining-room or restaurant, I selected some "fish-balls and coffee," I think more with a view to cheapness and expedition than for their absolute sustaining power. The waiter informed me that it was possible that my friend "Jim " might be in the settlement, but that the barkeeper, who knew everything and everybody, could tell me or give me "the shortest cut to the claim."
From sheer fatigue I lingered at my meal, I fear, long past any decent limit, and then reentered the bar-room. It was crowded with miners and traders and a few smartly dressed professional-looking men. Here again my vanity led me into extravagance. I could not bear to address the important, white-shirt-sleeved and diamond-pinned barkeeper as a mere boyish suppliant for information. I was silly enough to demand a drink, and laid down, alas! another quarter.
I had asked my question, the barkeeper had handed me the decanter, and I had poured out the stuff with as much ease and grown-up confidence as I could assume, when a singular incident occurred. As it had some bearing upon my fortune, I may relate it here.
The ceiling of the saloon was supported by a half-dozen wooden columns, about eighteen inches square, standing in a line, parallel with the counter of the bar and about two feet from it. The front of the bar was crowded with customers, when suddenly, to my astonishment, they one and all put down their glasses and hurriedly backed into the spaces between the columns. At the same moment a shot was fired from the street through the large open doors that stood at right angles with the front of the counter and the columns.
The bullet raked and splintered the mouldings of the counter front, but with no other damage. The shot was returned from the upper end of the bar, and then for the first time I became aware that two men with leveled revolvers were shooting at each other through the saloon.
The bystanders in range were fully protected by the wooden columns; the barkeeper had "ducked" below the counter at the first shot. Six shots were exchanged by the duelists, but, as far as I could see, nobody was hurt. A mirror was smashed, and my glass had part of its rim carried cleanly away by the third shot and its contents spilt.
I had remained standing near the counter, and I presume I may have been protected by the columns. But the whole thing passed so quickly, and I was so utterly absorbed in its dramatic novelty, that I cannot recall having the slightest sensation of physical fear; indeed, I had been much more frightened in positions of less peril. My only concern, and this was paramount, was that I might betray by any word or movement my youthfulness, astonishment, or unfamiliarity with such an experience. I think that any shy, vain schoolboy will understand this, and would probably feel as I did. So strong was this feeling, that while the sting of gunpowder was still in my nostrils I moved towards the bar, and, taking up my broken glass, said to the barkeeper, perhaps somewhat slowly and diffidently,
"Will you please fill me another glass? It's not my fault if this was broken."
The barkeeper, rising flushed and excited from behind the bar, looked at me with a queer smile, and then passed the decanter and a fresh glass. I heard a laugh and an oath behind me, and my cheeks flushed as I took a single gulp of the fiery spirit and hurried away.
But my blistered feet gave me a twinge of pain, and I limped on the threshold. I felt a hand on my shoulder, and a voice said quickly : "You ain't hurt, old man?" I recognized the voice of the man who had laughed, and responded quickly, growing more hot and scarlet, that my feet were blistered by a long walk, and that I was in a hurry to go to "Gum Tree" claim. "Hold on," said the stranger. Preceding me to the street, he called to a man sitting in a buggy: "Drop him," pointing to me, at 'Gum Tree' claim, and then come back here," helped me into the vehicle, clapped his hand on my shoulder, said to me enigmatically, "You'll do!" and quickly reentered the saloon.
It was from the driver only that I learned, during the drive, that the two combatants had quarreled a week before, had sworn to shoot each other "on sight," i. e., on their first accidental meeting, and that each "went armed." He added, disgustedly, that it was "mighty bad shooting," to which I, in my very innocence of these lethal weapons, and truthfulness to my youthful impressions, agreed!
I said nothing else of my own feelings, and, indeed, soon forgot them; for I was nearing the end of my journey, and now, for the first time, although I believe it a common experience of youth, I began to feel a doubt of the wisdom of my intentions. During my long tramp, and in the midst of my privations, I had never doubted it ; but now, as I neared "Jim's " cabin, my youthfulness and inefficiency and the extravagance of my quest of a mere acquaintance for aid and counsel came to me like a shock. But it was followed by a greater one. When at last I took leave of my driver and entered the humble little log cabin of the "Gum Tree Company," I was informed that "Jim" only a few days before had given up his partnership and gone to San Francisco.
Perhaps there was something in my appearance that showed my weariness and disappointment, for one of the partners dragged out the only chair in the cabin,he and the other partners had been sitting on boxes tilted on end,,and offered it to me, with the inevitable drink. With this encouragement, I stammered out my story. I think I told the exact truth. I was too weary to even magnify my acquaintance with the absent "Jim."
They listened without comment I dare say they had heard the story before. I am quite convinced they had each gone through a harder experience than mine. Then occurred what I believe could have occurred only in California in that age of simplicity and confidence. Without a word of discussion among themselves, without a word of inquiry as to myself, my character or prospects, they offered me the vacant partnership "to try."
In any event I was to stay there until I could make up my mind. As I was scarcely able to stand, one of them volunteered to fetch my pack from its "cache" in the bushes four miles away; and then, to my astonishment, conversation instantly turned upon other topics,,literature, science, philosophy, everything but business and practical concerns. Two of the partners were graduates of a Southern college and the other a bright young farmer.
I went to bed that night in the absent Jim's bunk, one-fourth owner of a cabin and a claim I knew nothing of. As I looked about me at the bearded faces of my new partners, although they were all apparently only a few years older than myself, I wondered if we were not "playing" at being partners in "Gum Tree" claim, as I had played at being schoolmaster in Madrono Valley.
When I awoke late the next morning and stared around the empty cabin, I could scarcely believe that the events of the preceding night were not a dream. My pack, which I had left four miles away, lay at my feet. By the truthful light of day I could see that I was lying apparently in a parallelogram of untrimmed logs, between whose interstices, here and there, the glittering sunlight streamed.
A roof of bark thatch, on which a woodpecker was foolishly experimenting, was above my head; four wooden "bunks," like a ship's berth, were around the two sides of the room; a table, a chair, and three stools, fashioned from old packing-boxes, were the only furniture. The cabin was lighted by a window of two panes let into one gable, by the open door, and by a chimney of adobe, that entirely filled the other gable, and projected scarcely a foot above the apex of the roof.
I was wondering whether I had not strayed into a deserted cabin, a dreadful suspicion of the potency of the single drink I had taken in the saloon coming over me, when my three partners entered. Their explanation was brief. I had needed rest, they had delicately for-borne to awaken me before. It was twelve o'clock! My breakfast was ready. They had something "funny" to tell me! I was a hero!
My conduct during the shooting affray at the "Magnolia" had been discussed, elaborately exaggerated, and interpreted by eye-witnesses; the latest version being that I had calmly stood at the bar, coolly demanding to be served by the crouching barkeeper, while the shots were being fired! I am afraid even my new friends put down my indignant disclaimer to youthful bashfulness, but, seeing that I was distressed, they changed the subject.
Yes! I might, if I wanted, do some "prospecting" that day. Where? Oh, anywhere on ground not already claimed; there were hundreds of square miles to choose from. . What was I to do? What! was it possible I had never prospected before? No! Nor dug gold at all? Never!
I saw them glance hurriedly at each other; my heart sank, until I noticed that their eyes were eager and sparkling! Then I learned that my ignorance was blessed! Gold miners were very superstitious ; it was one of their firm beliefs that "luck" would inevitably follow the first essay of the neophyte or "greenhorn." This was called "nigger luck"; i. e., the inexplicable good fortune of the inferior and incompetent It was not very complimentary to myself, but in my eagerness to show my gratitude to my new partners I accepted it.I dressed hastily, and swallowed my breakfast of coffee, salt pork, and "flapjacks." A pair of old deerskin moccasins, borrowed from a squaw who did the camp washing, was a luxury to my blistered feet; and, equipped with a pick, a long-handled shovel, and a prospecting-pan, I demanded to be led at once to my field of exploit. But I was told that this was impossible; I must find it myself, alone, or the charm would be broken!
I fixed upon a grassy slope, about two hundred yards from the cabin, and limped thither. The slope faced the magnificent canon and the prospect I had seen the day before from the further summit. In my vivid recollection of that eventful morning I quite distinctly remember that I was, nevertheless, so entranced with the exterior "prospect" that for some moments I forgot the one in the ground at my feet. Then I began to dig.
My instructions were to fill my pan with the dirt taken from as large an area as possible near the surface. In doing this I was sorely tempted to dig lower in search of more hidden treasure, and in one or two deeper strokes of my pick I unearthed a bit of quartz with little seams or veins that glittered promisingly. I put them hopefully in nay pocket, but duly filled my pan. This I took, not without some difficulty, owing to its absurd weight, to the nearest sluice-box, and, as instructed, tilted my pan in the running water.
As I rocked it from side to side, in a surprisingly short time the lighter soil of deep red color was completely washed away, leaving a glutinous clayey pudding mixed with small stones, like plums. Indeed, there was a fascinating reminiscence of "dirt pies" in this boyish performance. The mud, however, soon yielded to the flowing water, and left only the stones and "black sand." I removed the former with my fingers, retaining only a small, flat, pretty, disk-like stone, heavier than the others,it looked like a blackened coin,,and this I put in my pocket with the quartz. Then I proceeded to wash away the black sand.
I must leave my youthful readers to imagine my sensations when at last I saw a dozen tiny star-points of gold adhering to the bottom of the pan! They were so small that I was fearful of washing further, lest they should wash away. It was not until later that I found that their specific gravity made that almost impossible. I ran joyfully to where my partners were at work, holding out my pan.
"Yes, he's got the color/' said one blandly. "I knew it"
I was disappointed. "Then I haven't struck it?" I said hesitatingly.
"Not in this pan. You've got about a quarter of a dollar here."
My face fell. "But," he continued smilingly, "you've only to get that amount in four pans, and you've made your daily 'grub.'"
"And that's all/" added the other, "that we, or indeed any one on this hill, have made for the last six months!
This was another shock to me. But I do not know whether I was as much impressed by it as by the perfect good humor and youthful unconcern with which it was uttered. Still, I was disappointed in my first effort. I hesitatingly drew the two bits of quartz from my pocket.
"I found them," I said. "They look as if they had some metal in them. See how it sparkles.
My partner smiled. "Iron pyrites," he said; "but what's that?" he added quickly, taking the little disk-like stone from my hand. "Where did you get this?"
"In the same hole. Is it good for anything?"
He did not reply to me, but turned to his two other partners, who had eagerly pressed around him. "Look!"
He laid the fragment on another stone, and gave it a smart blow with the point of his pick. To my astonishment it did not crumble or break, but showed a little dent from the pick point that was bright yellow!
I had no time, nor indeed need, to ask another question.
"Run for your barrow!" he said to one. "Write out a Notice and bring the stakes," to the other; and the next moment, forgetful of my blistered feet, we were flying over to the slope. A claim was staked out, the "Notice" put up, and we all fell to work to load up our wheelbarrow. We carried four loads to the sluice-boxes before we began to wash.
The nugget I had picked up was worth about twelve dollars. We carried many loads; we worked that day and the next, hopefully, cheerfully, and without weariness. Then we worked at the claim daily, dutifully, and regularly for three weeks. We sometimes got " the color," we sometimes didn't, but we nearly always got enough for our daily "grub." We laughed, joked, told stories, "spouted poetry," and enjoyed ourselves as in a perpetual picnic. But that twelve-dollar nugget was the first and last "strike " we made on the new "Tenderfoot" claim!
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