"Riches certainly make themselves wings"
THE prospector is the man that makes mining possible. It is his enterprise, his
everlasting faith in prospects, his nerve and calm courage, that does the trick.
He casts a charm about lone grey hills whose land value is about "two bits" per
square mile, the price of a California miner's drink. He rambles in the chaparral,
sage brush; and is familiar with the owl's hoot, the coyote's howl, and the rattler's
hiss. But he enjoys his tin can repast, over a stick fire, amid such scenes; since
he lives expectant that a stumble of his foot may unearth rich rock, that will give
rise to a camp to be known by his name as the discoverer. Red Dick was such a man.
I met him on the slope of the Little Cottonwood Canyon one hot afternoon in July.
In midsummer the granite walls of this canyon absorb the sun's rays, and the flinty
rocks reflect this heat from side to side. The bed of the canyon is at furnace heat
during mid-day, only cooling with the evening breeze.
Red Dick was wiping the sweat from a very rubicund face with an old red kerchief, which he wore loose about his lean red neck: the red flannel shirt tucked into his old pants accentuated his color characteristics, and the afternoon's heat. He was spitting and swearing, when I came up to him, on the trail to Alta City. His bottle was broken, for a slip from his hand just as he lifted it, had let it fall on a sharp flint at his feet. I saw disappointment on the face of a thirsty and bibulous man. It was not water he had lost, but the favorite old rye whiskey in common use, and this gave greater volubility to his strong words. Strong waters always beget words under the stress of excitement.
"Say, Stranger, this is tough luck! Lost my drink just at the lip!"
He eyed me anxiously, with the evident hope that I had something stimulating hidden in my pocket. Well, I had. It was not whiskey for I cannot drink the stuff. I wonder that so many men like its flavour. But I like wine, for my ancestors all drank it at meals, and I had been accustomed to its use, in that way, from the days of my youth. I always thought of wine, beer, or ale as a beverage to be used as one uses milk, tea, coffee, or water to quench thirst agreeably.
It was not a temperance age or locality, and a strong drink was something everybody took, or expected to take on a suitable occasion. What I had was a flask of wine, some old Port, as a cordial for the body when overtaxed or chilled.
"Here is something as good as what you have lost," I handed my flask to him, with a smile. He eyed it and myself, and grinned in a friendly way. Next he tilted it to his dry mouth, and shut his eyes while its contents gurgled down his long red throat, his Adam's apple working vigorously. He was a gentleman, he knew when to stop. He took a good drink as he knew' I wished him to, but he left me half the contents, wiped the flask with his sleeve, and handed it back.
"Good stuff if it is wine! It hit the right spot at this pertickeler time."
I saw that he was a character, and was a promising find for a good story, so I set out to interview him, like a reporter.
As to outfit, he was evidently down to bedrock. A miner in luck is well, though roughly dressed. This man had no coat, a very dirty shirt and hat; while his overalls were held up by one lone suspender. His boots, of course, were well down at the heel, and almost open at the toes. Held by a thin rope across his chest, his bundle of blankets hung under his arm. They were as well worn as his clothes. He had tobacco and a pipe, for these implements of the solitary came into sight straightway after the drink, and he filled up and asked for a match. Soon the smoke was on, and I saw that he was ready for a yarn, and so at it I went.
"Yes, I'm down, but I'm not out, pardner! You can see that without my saying it. I've been down many a time, but never quite out. Some day I'll finish in luck or out of it; for this life is a strange deal to some of us. Say! I've known the day when I wore good clothes like yours. I got a bit of an education to start with, so I knew something about chemicals and assay work. Yes! I'm an old Californian, and just missed being a forty-niner. I was on the American River back of Sacramento, in the early days, and panned out a heap of gold dirt in those placer diggin's. Yes! I struck it rich there, but lost most of my pile when I visited Frisco with a bunch of the boys. But I had a good time, you bet!
"No! never thought, in those days, of settling down, or going into business. You see! those times were pretty free, and the dust came easy from the sands and rocks. We thought it would never let up, but just go on that way; so what was the use of saving the dust? Well! once I did buy a place. A poor fellow had made a farm out of some flat bottom land on the Yuba River near Marysville. He wanted to go East to see his folks, as he was on his last legs, being a one-lunger. I had coin then, and he hit me in a soft spot I have at times. So I bought him out. You never saw a feller so glad as this poor guy, when he had my wad.
"Well! I had a ranch on my hands, and a mighty fine vineyard too. I had stock and tools; a house and barn. In fact the whole outfit was there. The boys plagued me to marry a widow who had five kids of her own. She kept a feeding house in Marysville, and the boys said it was a duty I owed society to hitch up with her. Well! I didn't do it. I wasn't a marrying sort in those days. I might have done it once back where I came from. I ain't going to say where that was. That's all closed,-final. But she was cattish, and turned me down in a pet. So I felt very sore, and I ain't got over it yet.
"My ranch was a bother to me, for I didn't know a thing about farming. I like roving, and this thing called for settling down. What d'ye think settled it? The Yuba River!
"There came a flood such as you don't often see. The whole Sacramento Valley looked like a lake for weeks, and my ranch was washed clean off the earth by the time the water went down. You never saw such rain, about like it was when Noah went into the ark. Of course my ground showed up after the freshit, but there wasn't a thing on it, but mud and rocks, with some stranded logs and timber. House, vineyard, crops, stock all gone. So I let it slide, since the Yuba River had changed its course, and ran partly over my land.
"I wasn't pertickler sorry for I itched to get at a pick again. So the old life went on. Flush one year and busted the next. Went with the rush to every new diggin's, till I got the rhumaticks bad and had to quit for a time.
"Well! I set up a sort of resort at Stockton, which I bought with some coin I had left. I fed the travellers on the road to the mines. I liquored them at a bar, and let them gamble in my back room. You bet I was popular. This sort of thing did for a while, till a town fire burned out the whole side of the street, and my outfit went up in smoke.
"No insurance? Of course not. We weren't that careful in those days. Bedrock again. Then I joined a band of rangers to run out the cattle thieves, and greaser bandits, which were playing hob with the valley folks. In one hot scrimmage I got a ball in the thigh that stopped horse riding for good, and brought back my old rhumatiks.
"I was in a hospital in Frisco for about five months, with one thing and another. The Doc treated me fine, but shot an awful lot of stuff into my stummick in that length of time.
"I came out thin as a lath, but full of go. I went mining again, this time in quartz rock, on the Mother Lode, at Sonora town. It was shaft sinking, and I worked for pay, not for prospects. I kept right poor, for it always took the whole of my wages to live. D'ye notice that's the way with a salary man, he can't save a bean, for the life of him?
"Think of old age? No, never crossed my mind once 'til one day in a barber shop I saw I was gettin' grey and bald. You see I come of a stock that frosts early at top.
"Then came the Colorado rush, and it carried me right off my feet so to speak. A mining rush always took with me. I joined a party of surveyors, and we put through the desert for Denver. If I was a writer I could fill a book with stuff about that trip. I tell you we saw some awful things; but to go on with this truthful yarn, pard-ner, I prospected at Fairplay and Cripple Creek. But, Lord! it wasn't like the old diggin's on the Feather and Yuba Rivers above Marysville. No?
Californey's the mining ground for me. It took just four years to get foot-loose, and back to the coast; as far as this derned Mormon country. Say! I've just left them Emma Mine fellers, they are sports, all right; but no good at cheating, like them Yankee sharpers that sold them that salted claim at such a Bonanza figure. Yes! I'm on my way to Frisco, but I'm to try Bingham on this lap. Anything doing over there, pardner?"
I have put his story in, almost without a break, but I had to question him, at times, to keep him going, in my endeavor to get his life story.
He was evidently nearing the age of sixty, and I suppose, this old prospector would go on in his way of life, till some day he would go over the "divide," with about the same possessions he had when he came into this strange life.
Looking at it in a broad spirit, would he not be as well-to-do, as the man of millions, who, in dying, leaves his wealth behind for his sons to squander, or his relatives to fight over?
Rolling stones gather no moss was written on his face, and would be the fitting epitaph over his worn body, when it occupied the only piece of ground that he would own, when-Life's fitful dream was over.
We exchanged a few things. He gave me some odd specimens out of his pocket, and I gave him a few supplies from my travelling bag; for I was horseback, riding old Blueskin, a veteran canyon horse, on my way to Alta City.
The last I saw of him was his ragged hat, bobbing above some rocky points, as he swung around a bend in the trail, going down hill to the valley below, like a thousand more men of this strange, strident, virile breed of prospectors. He was a fair type of a set of men without whom the great Rocky West could not have been opened to settlement, railroads, and commerce.
It was a long uphill ride to Alta City, with frowning walls high on either hand. Turn after turn was passed, till at last we struck the snow level, a little short of nine thousand feet altitude. I stopped awhile at a wayside restaurant, kept by a dapper little woman and her midget of a husband. She gave me a meal for a dollar,-one egg, two soda biscuits, a dab of butter, two "corn pancakes with a little syrup in a dirty glass, a cup of coffee-of rather a washy kind-for my outlay. She said "vittles was dear as freight was high."
She was proud of her husband, dubbed him "her man," and asked me if I did not think him a "proper sort," as he went out the back to hack at some sticks for the fire. He seemed so obedient that the big black cigar in his mouth looked out of place. She said that it was his "only failing," and that a man ought to have some bad habits to make him "real nice."
Refreshed, and my horse fed at about the same cost as for my own food, I left the happy couple of this upper world life to their restaurant and its charms. By nightfall, I reached the camp, just as the lights began to sparkle in the windows of the buildings along the one main street.
I had a letter to an ex-Mormon elder. He was in business, carrying everything in his store that could be wanted in such a place. He slept in a little recess at the rear of the store; where he had an equally small kitchen. I know that we two barely found room to sit down at a table, hinged to the wall. He was hospitable and said I could sleep on a shelf about three feet wide, under some blankets. He started supper, first wiping out his frying pan with some old copies of the Salt Lake Tribune. He said that it was sanitary, and beat a dish cloth, since you could use the paper afterward to start a fire. He pounded some tough meat tender, he slushed his knives and forks in some hot but greasy water, and laid them wet by equally wet plates which had been washed in the same manner as the knives and forks. He put on a whole roll of butter and a lot of sad looking soda biscuits. Meanwhile the meat frizzled and some potatoes boiled. We had coffee out of a big black can, that had stood heat and smoke of many fires, but as it was strong and hot, it went down. He had some condensed milk, then a new thing, and of which he was very proud. Brown sugar did the sweetening. Being polite, I ate as he did, and made no comments. Still I enjoyed this evening meal more than I did the mid-day dinner at the restaurant on Main street the next day; for I unfortunately passed through the kitchen at the wrong moment, wishing to dry a couple of handkerchiefs at the big stove. Looking around I was in time to see the Chinese cook in the pantry making biscuits, and spraying the nicely assorted nascent bread with his mouth in Chinese laundry style.
That let me out. I never touched biscuit-bread again in that camp, or in any other. I had either pancakes or loaf bread. Still John did this in a most innocent, matter-of-fact manner that made me certain that it was the procedure in the preparation of biscuit, by all such oriental cooks.
My host of the evening was a bright and clever man. He had a fine mind, and so as we got onto the subject of the Mormons and his departure from them, we had a good talk on philosophy. He was an advocate of the old idea of holding your life views of religion, or aught else that was metaphysical, in an exoteric manner to suit the multitude, and an esoteric manner to suit yourself. That meant if it were popular and profitable, go with the majority externally, but mentally hold your own view internally and subjectively. In fact, be a hypocrite if necessary, but do not give yourself away, if you change your opinion.
"Well if this is right?" I said, "why did you leave the Mormons?"
"Well, I joined them because I had to; it was policy and it was safe. You understand that I left because I could leave them safe, since Uncle Sam was here, and I did not like their views."
"Oh! You left them because of polygamy, I suppose."
"No. I could be a polygamist, if it paid to go into that condition; but not if I had to face poverty and feed a lot of mouths. It's not a moral question with me at all. Some are born to be polygamous, and it is safer for them and their morals to have several wives. No! I saw more money in these mines, and no way of making it if I stayed under the great Co-op. I am running a Co-op of my own right here."
"Well! when you get rich, what then?"
"The world is wide, and I will find a nicer nest than rough camps and these loud-mouthed miners. There are Art and Literary centers in Europe where one could live, if one had money."
This educated freethinker had some willowy principles as the outcome of his hankey-pankey playing with this "exoteric" and "esoteric" philosophy applied to common every-day life.
Coming down from this mining aerie is no tax on heart, but it is upon the heels, I left my old horse, Blueskin for his owner to bring down later, and took the trail afoot, since I had to connect with the narrow-gauge railroad at the depot eight miles below. At first over the snow it was easy going. Although it was June there was snow at this altitude, but as soon as I passed below the snow line, I struck the ties of the tram-cars. Mules took the place of the locomotive, as the grade was five hundred feet to the mile, too steep for steam. The mule cars had gone already and I soon got into trouble with my heels. I had to hurry, and so it was pound-pound steadily down grade, my heels hitting the ties at every step. I forgot the consequences of such foot-work. Eight miles of this at top-speed and I made the train. I also made some "tender-feet" too. The next day I was on my back, due to contracted lumbar muscles, from this severe jarring of the heels upon the ties. The boys in camp laughingly called it a tenderloin spine. It was three days before I could walk erect.
While in Alta City I heard of a miner's easy death. He was a veteran, and was ascending to his work at one of the highest mines in the range. The trail was long and winding, and the air was thin at that great height. Out of breath, he sat to rest on a jutting rock, a short distance below the mine tunnel. From weariness he sighed, and as he did so he expired. His breath came out, but none returned.
"His heart but once heaved, and forever grew still."
This camp has suffered from snowslides. A wholesale tragedy of this kind occurred the winter before my arrival. The food and ammunition for the mines, in the winter go up the trail- on pack mules or freight sleds. This is slow climbing. It is along a trail constantly covered by heavy snows, and swept by avalanches from higher points. The trail is too narrow to allow a team to turn round, and there are only occasional places where the width permits teams to pass each other. There is no chance to increase speed beyond an unsteady plod. In March a surface thaw had occurred, due to a wandering Chinook wind from Oregon. A heavy frost had followed. Then on this slippery surface a heavy coat of snow had fallen when Old Winter had shouted "I've not done with that camp yet." A heavy deposit resting on such a slippery surface needed only a jar to start a slide. It was this oft recurring condition that gave to the gulch, where this tragedy happened, the name of "Dead Man's Gulch." Nineteen freight sleds, with as many men and teams, were slowly passing the mouth of this gulch. The leading teamster was watching the crest of the gulch, and saw the first signs of a slide, "the snow-smoke." Instantly he yelled, "A slide! A slide! Whip up, Boys!" Whips cracked and mules struggled forward, the drivers looking up, with no more time than for a look. With an increasing roar, the whole slope seemed to start to life, and swept downward. Snow, rocks, trees, mixed in wildest tumult, formed an awful front which swept on, and over the trail. A moment later nothing was left of the long line of freighters but the leading team. The driver was the only living one to see this slide pile up in the bottom of the canyon, the avalanche missing him by a few yards. With his heart in his mouth, he pushed on, to Alta City, to report the loss of all the others. Buried a hundred feet deep they were hidden until the July sun, melting the snow, exposed the wreck of men, animals, and goods.
Another danger beset the traveller in this canyon. Near the entrance, and where the junction of the locomotive railroad and the mule tram-cars
occurred, was a mass of giant granite blocks fallen from the towering cliffs. Some were as big as a house, others sharp-pointed like a tooth, while more looked like huge pieces of cube sugar, so square were they. These being accessible to the railroad, they were being worked up by the masons for the walls of the Mormon Temple in Salt Lake City. Asleep on these blocks and about the crevasses were hosts of great rattle snakes, so numerous that in the heat of summer you could detect their peculiar odor as you passed by. A notice, with the legend "Be careful," was erected here for the safety of all travellers. A good deal of revolver practice took place here; the miners' enjoying the sport of shooting off the heads of these reptiles as they lay sunning themselves on the rocks. I have seen the stage driver, with his skill-ful whip, almost cut off the heads of some rattlers near-by as we passed up the grade.
Next: Chapter XV: A Lively Mining Camp