Mexican Camp was a nest of snow white miners' tents huddled down in a dimple of the Sierras. If you had stood near the flag pole in the center of the camp, on which the Stars and Stripes were raised or lowered on the arrival or departure of the Mustang express,— the only regular thread connecting the camp with the outer world,—and looked intently west, you might have seen, on a day of singular clearness, beyond some new born cities, the lash of the Pacific in the sun. At your back, mountains black with pine and cedar, then bald and gray with granite, basalt, and cinder, then white with everlasting snow, had made you feel strong and secure of intrusion in the rear. Close about you, on the hillsides and in the gulch, you had seen trees lifting their limbs above the heads of thousands, of men who knew for the time no other shelter; while at your feet in the gulch, and as far down as the eye could follow it, the little muddy stream struggled on through little fleets of tin and iron pans, great Mexican wooden bowls, and through cradles, toms, and sluices. You had seen long gray lines of Mexican mules stringing around the mountain, winding into the camp with their heavy burdens; you had heard the shouts, spiced thick with oaths, of the tawny packers. You had heard the sound of the hammer and ax on every hand, for a new city had been born, as it were, the night before, and this was its first struggle cry and reaching of uncertain hands. All day on either side the stream sat a wall of men washing for gold. The Mexican and the American were side by side that had been breast to breast at Monterey; the lawyer wrought beside his client; the porter found his strong arms made him the superior here to the dainty gentleman to whose wants he had once ministered.
That was a Democracy pure and simple. Life, energy, earnestness. That was the beginning of a race in life in which all had an even start. What an impulse it was! It inspired the most sluggish. It thrilled the most indifferent, dignified and ennobled the basest soul that was there. Mexican Camp has perished, but it has left its lesson—a verdict clear and unqualified in favor of the absolute equality of men, without any recommendation of mercy to masters.
Each man, peer or peon, had six feet of ground. That was made a law at a miners' meeting held around the flag staff the day it was raised, at which Kangaroo Brown presided with uncommon dignity, considering his long term of service at Sidney, not to mention the many indiscretions laid to his charge before leaving his native country at his country's expense, for his country's good. It was at first passed that a miner should hold five feet only, but a Yankee who had an uncommonly rich claim moved a reconsideration, and without waiting to get a second, made a speech and put his own motion. This was his speech and motion, delivered at the top of his voice: "Boys, I go you a foot better. Blast it, let's give a fellow enough to be buried in, anyhow. All those that say six feet make it manifest by saying aye."
There was a chorus. "The ayes have it, and six feet is the law; and I now declare this meeting adjourned sign die," and the convict chairman descended from the pine stump where he had stood in his shirt sleeves, took up his pick and pan, and, divested of his authority of an hour, entered his claim, and bent his back to the toil, as did the thousands of men around him.
As a truthful chronicler I am bound to say that Sunday never did much for the miner on the Pacific. The fault, of course, was the mode of its observance. But there is a promise. The old order of things is passing away; most of the old miners, too—let this be said with reverence—have passed away with their camps. On that day, as it was, all went to town, and the streets became a sea of bearded men. Not a boy, not a woman in sight. On that day were perpetrated nine tenths of the crimes. Provisions for the week were bought, gold dust sold or sent away by express to the dependent ones at home, and then the miner gave himself up often to the only diversions the country afforded, cards and intoxication. The men of the Pacific were originally a peculiarly grand body of heroes. The weak of nerve never started, and the weak of body died on the journey there, and the result was a selection of men mighty for good or evil. They were unlike all other men. For example, the noisy border ruffian of the Mississippi bar room or Western frontier had no counterpart in California. The desperado of the Pacific disdains words. A half dozen Germans or Irish will make more commotion over the price of a glass than will a camp of Californians in a misunderstanding that ends in as many deaths.
"Are you heeled? Then draw," comes quick as a thought; and unless a sharp negative is thrown in against the question, shot after shot follows till some one falls. "Shootists" of the Pacific also have their rules of etiquette. In the face of a thousand pictures and publications to the contrary, I protest that they rarely carry six shooters except when traveling; and that it is considered in as bad taste to display a pistol as to enter the drawing room wearing spurs. A man who wears a six shooter and bowie knife publishes himself as a verdant immigrant, and is despised for his display. Nor is the desperado of the Pacific the bearded, uncouth ruffian he is represented. He is, in fact, loud neither in dress nor in manner; he is partial to French boots, patronizes the barber, has even been known to wear kid gloves, and is in outward appearance a gentleman.
Mexican Camp flourished like a palm for many years, then, like all placer mining camps, it began to decline. The gold was washed from the best parts of the gulch, and the best men of the camp, one by one, returned to their homes in other lands, or retired to camps deeper in the mountains, as their fortunes directed. As the Saxon went out, the Celestial came in, but gave no new blood to the camp. Vacant cabins and adobe chimneys stood all up and down the gulch, and lizards sunned themselves upon them undisturbed. The butcher, the great autocrat of the mining camp, began to come around with his laden mules but twice a week instead of twice a day. A bad sign for the camp.
But there was one cabin that was never vacant; it stood apart from town, on the brown hillside, and as it was one of the first, so it promised to be the last of the camp. It always had an ugly bull dog tied to the door, and was itself a low, suspicious looking structure that year by year sank lower as the grass grew taller around it, till it seemed trying to hide in the chaparral. It had but one occupant, a silent, selfish man, who never came out by day except to bury himself alone in his claim at work. Nothing was known of him at all, save the story that he had killed his partner in a gambling house away back somewhere in '49. He was shunned and feared by all, and he approached and spoke to no one, except the butcher, the grocer, and expressman; and to these only briefly, on business. I believe, however, that the old outcast known as "Fortynine Jimmy" sometimes sat on the bank and talked to the murderer at work in his claim. It was even said that Fortynine was on fair terms with the dog at the door; but as this was doubted by the man who kept the only saloon now remaining in Mexican Camp, and who was consequently an authority, the report was not believed.
Let it be here observed that when a mining camp sinks to the chronic state of decay that this now presented, the men remaining in it, as a rule, are idlers, and by no means representative miners. Their relation to the real, living, wide awake, energetic miner, is about that which the miserable Indians that consent to settle on a reservation bear to the wild sons of the woods, who retire before their foes to the mountains.
This solitary man of the savage dog was known as "The Gopher." That was not the name given him by his parents; but it was the name Mexican Camp had given him, a generation before, and it was now the only name by which he was known. The amount of gold which he had hoarded and hidden away in that dismal old cabin, through years and years of incessant toil, was computed to be enormous.
Year after year the grass stole farther down from the hilltops to which it had been driven, as it were, in the early settlement of the camp: at last it environed the few remaining cabins, as if they were besieged, and it stood up tall and undisturbed in the only remaining street. Still regularly three times a day the smoke curled up from The Gopher's cabin, and the bull dog kept unbroken sentry at the door.
A quartz lead had been struck a little way farther up the gulch, and a rival town established. The proprietors named the new camp "Orodelphi," but the man of the saloon of Mexican Camp, who always insisted he was born a genius, called it "Hogem." It stuck like wax, and "Hogem" is the only name by which the little town is known to this day.
One evening there was consternation among the idlers of Mexican Camp. It was announced that the last saloon was to be removed to Hogem. A remonstrance was talked of; but when a man known as the "Judge," from his calm demeanor in the face of the gravest trouble, urged that the calamity was not so great after all, since each man could easily transport his blankets and frying pan to the vacant cabins of Hogem, no more was said.
The next winter The Gopher was left utterly alone, and in the January Spring that followed, the grass and clover crept down strong and thick from the hills and spread in a pretty carpet across the unmeasured streets of the once populous and prosperous Mexican Camp. Little gray horned toads sunned themselves on the great flat rocks that had served for hearth stones, and the wild hop vines clambered up and across the toppling and shapeless chimneys.
About this time a closely contested election drew near. It was a bold and original thought of a candidate to approach The Gopher and solicit his vote. His friends shook their heads, but his case was desperate, and he ventured down upon the old gray cabin, hiding in the grass and chaparral. The dog protested, and the office seeker was proceeding to knock his ugly teeth down his throat with a pick handle, when the door opened, and he found the muzzle of a double barreled shotgun in his face. The candidate did not stay to urge his claims, and The Gopher's politics remained a mystery.
I know but one more incident that broke the dreary monotony in the life of this selfish and singular man. One dark night two men of questionable character were found in the trail, trying to drag themselves to Hogem. They were riddled with shot like a tom iron. They had been prospecting around for The Gopher's gold, and had received their "baptism of fire" in attempting to descend his chimney.
Here in this land of the sun the days trench deep into the nights of northern countries, and birds and beasts retire before the sunset: a habit which the transplanted Saxon declines to adopt.
Some idlers sat at sunset on the veranda of the saloon at Hogem, looking down the gulch as the manzanita smoke curled up from The Gopher's cabin.
There is an hour when the best that is in man comes to the surface; sometimes the outcroppings are not promising of any great inner wealth; but the indications, whatever they may be, are not false. It is dulse and drift coming to the surface when the storm of the day is over. Yet the best thoughts are never uttered: often because no fit words are found to array them in; oftener because no fit ear is found to receive them.
A sailor broke silence:"Looks like a Fejee camp on a South Sea island."
"Robinson Crusoe—the last man of Mexican Camp—the last rose of summer." This was said by a young man who had sent some verses to the Hangtown Weekly.
"Looks to me, in its crow's nest of chaparral, like the lucky ace of spades," added a man who sat apart contemplating the wax under the nail of his right forefinger.
The school master here picked up the ace of hearts, drew out his pencil and figured rapidly.
"There!" He cried, flourishing the card,"I put it at an ounce a day for eighteen years, and that is the result." The figures astonished them all. It was decided that the old miser had at least a mule load of gold in his cabin. "It is my opinion," said the Squire, who was small of stature, and consequently insolent and impertinent," he had ought to be taken up, tried, and hung for killing his partner in '49."
"The time has run out," said the coroner, who now came up, adjusting a tall hat to which he was evidently not accustomed; "the time for such cases, by the law made and provided, has run out, and it is my opinion it can't be did."
Not long after this it was discovered that The Gopher was not at work. Then it came out that he was very ill, and that old Fortynine was seen to enter his cabin.
Early one frosty morning in the fall following, old Fortynine Jimmy sat by the door of the only saloon at Hogem. He held an old bull dog by a tow string, and both man and dog were pictures of distress as they shivered from the keen cold wind that came pitching down from the snow peaks. As I approached, the man shivered till his teeth chattered, and, clutching at his string, looked helplessly over his shoulder at the uncompromising bar keeper, who had just arisen and opened the door to let out the bad odors of his den. The dog shivered, too, and came up and sat down close enough to receive the sympathetic hand of old Fortynine on his broad bowed head. This man was a relic and a wreck. Nearly twenty years of miner's life and labor in the mountains, interrupted only by periodical sprees, governed in their duration solely by the results of his last "clean up," had made him one of a type of men known only to the Pacific. True, he had failed to negotiate with the savage cinnamon headed vender of poison; but he was no beggar. It was simply a failure to obtain a Wall street accommodation in a small way. I doubt if the bristle haired barkeeper himself questioned the honesty of Fortynine. It was merely a question of ability to pay, and the decision of the autocrat had been promptly and firmly given against the applicant. Perhaps, in strict justice to the red haired wretch that washed his tumblers and watched for victims that frosty morning, I should state that appearances were certainly against Fortynine. It is nothing at all against a brave, frugal gold miner, lifting his heart out of and over the Sierras to a group awaiting him away in the East, to be found wearing patches on his clothes, and even patches on the patches: in fact, I have known many who, coupling a quaint humor with economy, wore—neatly stitched on that portion of a certain garment most liable to wear and tear when the owner had only boulders and hard benches to sit upon—the last week's flour sack, bearing this inscription in bold black letters: "Warranted superfine, 50 lbs." But Fortynine had not even a patch, therefore no flour sack, ergo, no flour. The most certain sign of the total wreck of a California miner is the absence of top boots. When all other signs fail, this one is infallible. You can with tolerable certainty, in the placer mines, tell how a miner's claim is paying by the condition and quality of his top boots. Fortynine had no boots, only a pair of slippers improvised from "what had been," and between the top of these and the legs of his pantaloons there was no compromise across the naked, cold blue ankles. These signs, together with a buttonless blue shirt that showed his hairy bosom, a frightful beard, and hair beneath a hat that drooped like a wilted palm leaf, were the circumstantial evidences from which Judge Barkeep made his decision.
It would perhaps be more pleasant for us all if we could know that such men were a race to themselves; that they never saw civilization; that there never was a time when they were petted by pretty sisters, and sat, pure and strong, the central figures of Christian households; or at least we would like to think that they grew upon the border, and belonged there. But the truth is, nine cases out of ten, they came of the gentlest blood and life. The border man, born and bred in storms, never gets discouraged; it is the man of culture, refinement, and sensitive nature who falls from the front in the hard fought battles of the West.
This man's brow was broad and full; had his beard and hair been combed and cared for, his head had looked a very picture. But, after all, there was one weak point in his face. He had a small, hesitating nose.
As a rule, in any great struggle involving any degree of strategy and strength, the small nose must go to the wall. It may have pluck, spirit, refinement, sensitiveness, and, in fact, to the casual observer, every quality requisite to success; but somehow invariably at the very crisis it gives way. Small noses are a failure. This is the verdict of history. Give me a man, or woman either, with a big nose, —not a nose of flesh, not a loose, flabby nose like a camel's lips, nor a thin, starved nose that the eyes have crowded out and forced into prominence, but a full, strong, substantial nose, that is willing and able to take the lead; one that asserts itself boldly between the eyes, and reaches up towards the brows, and has room enough to sit down there and be at home. Give me a man, or woman either, with a nose like that, and I will have a nose that will accomplish something. I grant you that such a nose may be a knave; it may be equally a genius; but it is never a coward nor a fool—never!
In the strong stream of miners' life as it was, no man could stand still. He either went up or down. The strong and not always the best went up. The weak—which often embraced the gentlest and sweetest natures—were borne down and stranded here and there all along the river.
I have noticed that those who stop, stand, and look longest at the tempting display of viands in cook shop windows, are those that have not a penny to purchase with. Perhaps there was something of this nature in old Forty nine that impelled him to look again and again over his shoulder—as he clutched tighter to the tow string—at the cinnamon headed bottle washer behind the bar at Hogem.
As I stood before this man, he turned his eyes from the barkeeper and lifted them helplessly to mine,—
"Charlie is dead."
"Charlie who? Who is 'Charlie'?"
"Charlie Godfrey, The Gopher, and here is his dog;" and as he spoke, the dog, as if knowing his master's name and feeling his loss, crouched close to the old man's legs.
A new commotion in Hogem. Say what you will of gold, whenever any one shuts his eyes and turns forever from it, as if in contempt, his name, for a day at least, assumes a majesty proportionate with the amount he has left behind and seems to despise.
The coroner, who was a candidate for a higher office, marshaled the leading spirits at Hogem and proceeded to the cabin where the dead man lay. He felt that his reputation was at stake, and entering the cabin, said in a solemn voice: "In the name of the law, I take possession of this primeses." Some one at the door, evidently not a friend to the coroner's political aspirations, called out: "O, what a hat!" The officer was not abashed, but towered up till his tall hat touched the roof, and repeated, "In the name of the law, I take possession of this primeses." This time there was no response or note of derision, and it was quietly conceded that The Gopher and all his gold were in the hands of the coroner.
The cabin was a true and perfect relic of what might, geologically speaking, be termed a period in the plastic formation of the Republic. Great pine logs, one above the other, formed three of its walls; the fourth was made up by a fire place, constructed of boulders and adobe. The bed had but one post; a pine slab, supported by legs set in the center of the earthen floor, formed a table; the windows were holes, chiseled out between the logs, that could be closed with wooden plugs in darkness or danger. Let these cabins not be despised. Their builders have done more for the commerce of the world than is supposed. Some day some cunning and earnest hand will picture them faithfully, and they will not be forgotten.
It is to be admitted that the dead man did not look so terrible, even in death, as the mind had pictured him. His unclosed eyes looked straight at those who came only to reproach him, and wonder where his money was buried, till they were abashed.
Standing there, the jury, under direction of the coroner, gave a verdict of "death from general debility." Some one tried to bring the coroner into contempt again, by afterwards calling attention to the fact that he had forgotten to swear the jury; but the officer replied, "It is not necessary in such cases by the law made and provided," and so was counted wise and correct.
They bore the body of the last man of Mexican Camp to the graveyard on the hill— may be a little nearer to heaven. How odd that nearly all graveyards are on a hill. The places of chief mourners were assigned to Fortynine and the dog. Whether these places were given because Fortynine was the only present acquaintance of the deceased, or whether the dog quietly asserted a right that no one cared to dispute, is not certain. Most likely it was one of those things that naturally, and therefore correctly, adjust themselves.
When these bearded men in blue shirts rested their burden at the open grave, they looked at each other, and there was an unpleasant pause. Perhaps they thought of the Christian burial service in other lands, and felt that something was wanting. At last Fortynine stole up close to the head of the grave, hesitated, lifted and laid aside his old slouch hat, and looking straight down into the earth, said, in a low and helpless way:
"Earth to earth and dust to dust!" hesitated again and then continued: "The mustard and the clover seed are but little things, and no man can tell the one from the other; yet bury them in the uttermost parts of the earth, and each will bring its kind perfect and beautiful, —and—and—man is surely more than a little seed—and—and..." here he broke down utterly, and knelt and kissed the face of the dead.
The men looked away for a while, as if to objects in the horizon, and then, without looking at each other, or breaking silence, lowered the unshapely box, caught up the spades, and found a positive relief in heaping the grave.
Then the coroner, as in duty bound, or, as he expressed it, "as required by the law in such cases made and provided," directed his attentions to a search for the buried treasure.
Yeast powder boxes, oyster cans and sardine boxes, old boots and quicksilver tanks, were carried out to the light and inspected, without results. "In the straw of the bunk," said the coroner;—and blankets, bunk, and straw were carried out to the sun; but not an ounce of gold. To make sure against intrusion of the ill disposed, the unwearied coroner slept on the spot. The next day, the hearth was taken up carefully, piece by piece, but only crickets clad in black, and little pink eyed mice met the eager eyes of the men. At last some one suggested that as the hard baked earthen floor was the last place in which one would look for hidden treasures, that was probably the first and only place in which The Gopher had buried his gold. The thought made the coroner enthusiastic. He sent for picks, and, if I must tell the truth, and the whole truth, he sent for whisky also. By sunset the entire earthen floor had been dug to the depth of many feet and emptied outside the door. Not a farthing's worth of gold was found. The next day the chimney was taken down. Lizards, dust of adobes, but nothing more. I am bound to say that, about this time, the memory of the man just taken to the hill was held in but little respect, and that a good or bad name, so far as the over zealous coroner was concerned, depended entirely on the final results of the search. But one more thing remained to be done: that was to remove the cabin. Shingle by shingle, log by log, the structure was leveled. Wood rats, kangaroo mice, horned toads, a rattlesnake or two that had gone into winter quarters under the great logs, and that was all. Not an ounce of gold was found in the last cabin of Mexican Camp.
The flat was then staked off as mining ground by some enterprising strangers, and they began in the center to sluice it to the bedrock. They sluiced up the gulch for a month, and then down the gulch for a month, until the whole hillside was scalped, as it were, to the bone, and the treasure hunters were bankrupt, but not even so much as the color of the dead man's gold was found.
Hogem was disgusted, and The Gopher was voted a worse man dead than living.
It began to be noticed, however, that Forty nine had mended somewhat in his personal appearance since the death of The Gopher, and it was whispered that he knew where the treasure was. Some even went so far as to say that he had the whole pile of it in his possession. "Some of these nights he'll come up a missing," said the butcher, striking savagely at his steel across his block. In justice to Hogem it must be observed she was not without grounds to go upon in her suspicions. For was not Fortynine near the man at his, death? And if he could get his dog, why not get his gold also?
One night Fortynine, holding tight to a tow string, shuffled up to me in the saloon, and timidly plucking my sleeve, said:
" Going away, I hear?"
"To the States?"
" Near to Boston ? "
"Well, then, look here: come with me!"— and with an old dog bumping his head against his heels, he led the way out the door down the gulch to his cabin. He pulled the latch string, entered, and finally struck a light, Sticking the candle in a whisky bottle that stood on the greasy table in the center of the earthen floor, he picked up the tow string, and pointing to the bunk in the corner, we sat down together, and the old dog rested his nose between the old man's legs.
After looking about the cabin in nervous silence for a time. Fortynine arose with a look of resolution, handed me his string, stepped to a niche in the wall, and taking an old crevicing knife, struck it in stoutly above the latch.
"This means something," said I to myself.
"Here will be a revelation," and I confess that a vision of The Gopher's gold bags crossed my mind with tempting vividness. After a while the old man came back, took up the whisky bottle, removed the candle from the niche, and holding it up between his face and the light, which he held in the other hand, seemed to decide some weighty proposition, by the run of the beads in the bottle, and then turned and offered it to me in silence. As I declined his kindness, he hurriedly took a long draught, replaced the candle, then came and sat down close at my side, took his string, and the old dog again thrust his nose between his knees.
"You see,"—and the man leaned over to me, and began in a whisper and a strangeness of manner that suggested that his mind was wandering,—"you see, we all come out from Boston together: Godfrey, that's The Gopher, Wilson, that's Curty, and I. Things didn't go right with me there, after I came away, so 1 just let them drift here. Lost my 'grip,' as they say, didn't have any 'snap' anymore, as people call it. Godfrey and Wilson got on very well, though, till Wilson was killed."
"Till The Gopher killed him?" I added.
"Well, now, there's where it is," said old Forty nine, and he shuddered. The dog, too, seemed to grow nervous, and crowded his ugly head up tighter between the old man's legs.
Inartistic as it is, I must add that here he again handed me the string, and rising solemnly, went deliberately through the process of removing the candle, and contemplating the contents of the bottle. Again I declined his offer. I was wondering in which part of that wretched cabin were the bags of gold.
The man sat down and continued his story exactly as before.
"There's where it is. Godfrey did not kill Wilson. The Gopher did not kill Curly no more than did you. You see, Curly was young, a bright, beautiful, sunny faced boy, that had been petted to death by his mother and a house full of sisters, and somehow, out here, he fell to gambling and taking a bit too much, and one night, when Godfrey tried to get him away from a game, a set of roughs got up a row, upset the table, and Curly got knifed by some one of the set, who made a rumpus to get a grab at the money. Godfrey was holding the boy at the time to keep him from striking, for he was mad with drink. Poor Curly only said, 'Don't let them know it at home,' and died in his arms. Everybody was stranger to everybody then, and no one took stock in that which did not directly concern him. People said Godfrey was right—that it was a case of self defense, and Godfrey never said a word, never denied he killed him, but went back to the cabin, took possession of everything, and had it all his own way. He worked like a Chinaman, and never took any part in miners' meetings, or anything of the kind, and people began to fear and shun him. By and by all his old acquaintances had gone but me; and he was only known as The Gopher."
Again Fortynine paused, and the dog crept closer than before, as if he knew the name of his master.
Once more the man arose, lifted the candle, contemplated the beads in the bottle, as before, and returned. He did not sit down, but took up and pulled back the blankets at the end of the bunk.
"I thought as much," said I to myself. "The gold is hidden in the straw."
"Look at them," said he; and he threw down a bundle of papers, and held the dim candle for me to read.
There were hundreds of letters, all written in a fine steel plate lady's hand. Some addressed to Godfrey, and some to Wilson. Now and then was one with a border of black, telling that some one at home no longer waited the return. Some of the letters I read. "Come home, come home," was at the bottom of them all. I chanced on one addressed to Wilson, of a recent date, thanking him with all a mother's and sister's tenderness for the money he had so constantly sent them through all the weary years. I did not understand it and looked up at Fortynine. He bent over me, as I sat on the bunk beside the letters, with his candle.
"That was it, you see; that was it. As Godfrey, that's The Gopher, is dead, and can send them no more money, and as you was a going to the States, I thought best that you should drop in and tell the two families gently, somehow, that they both are dead. Say that they died together. He sent them the last ounce he had the week before he died, and made me take these letters to keep them away from the coroner, so that he might not know his address, and so that they might not know at home that Curly had died long ago, and died a gambler. Take one of the letters along, and that will tell you where they are."
Again old Fortynine resumed the tow string. He looked toward the door, and when I had stepped across the sill he put out the light, and we stood together.
The old dog knew there was but the one place for his master outside his cabin at such a time, and, blind leading the blind, thither he led him through the dark.Start reading The First Woman in the Forks