The Gold Trail, by Stewart Edward White

We came upon the diggings quite suddenly. The trail ran around the corner of a hill; and there they were below us! In the wide, dry stream bottom perhaps fifty men were working busily, like a lot of ants. Some were picking away at the surface of the ground, others had dug themselves down waist deep, and stooped and rose like legless bodies. Others had disappeared below ground, and showed occasionally only as shovel blades. From so far above, the scene was very lively and animated, for each was working like a beaver, and the red shirts made gay little spots of colour. On the hillside clung a few white tents and log cabins; but the main town itself, we later discovered, as well as the larger diggings, lay around the bend and upstream.

We looked all around us for some path leading down to the river, but could find none; so perforce we had to continue on along the trail. Thus we entered the camp of Hangman's Gulch for if it had been otherwise, I am sure we would have located promptly where we had seen those red-shirted men.

The camp consisted merely of a closer-knit group of tents, log shacks, and a few larger buildings constructed of a queer combination of heavy hewn timbers and canvas. We saw nobody at all, though in some of the larger buildings we heard signs of life. However, we did not wait to investigate the wonders of Hangman's Gulch, but drove our animals along the one street, looking for the trail that should lead us back to the diggings. We missed it, somehow, but struck into a beaten path that took us upstream. This we followed a few hundred yards. It proceeded along a rough, boulder-strewn river-bed, around a point of rough, jagged rocks, and out to a very wide gravelly flat through which the river had made itself a narrow channel. The flat swarmed with men, all of them busy, and very silent.

Leading our pack-horses we approached the nearest pair of these men, and stood watching them curiously. One held a coarse screen of willow which he shook continuously above a common cooking-pot, while the other slowly shovelled earth over this sieve. When the two pots, which with the shovel seemed to be all the tools these men possessed, had been half filled thus with the fine earth, the men carried them to the river. We followed. The miners carefully submerged the pots, and commenced to stir their contents with their fists. The light earth muddied the water, floated upward, and then flowed slowly over the rim of the pots and down the current. After a few minutes of this, they lifted the pots carefully, drained off the water, and started back.

"May we look?" ventured Johnny.

The taller man glanced at us, and our pack-horses, and nodded. This was the first time he had troubled to take a good look at us. The bottom of the pot was covered with fine black sand in which we caught the gleam and sparkle of something yellow.

"Is that gold?" I asked, awed.

"That's gold," the man repeated, his rather saturnine features lighting up with a grin. Then seeing our interest, he unbent a trifle. "We dry the sand, and then blow it away," he explained; and strode back to where his companion was impatiently waiting.

We stumbled on over the rocks and debris. There were probably something near a hundred men at work in the gulch. We soon observed that the pot method was considered a very crude and simple way of getting out the gold. Most of the men carried iron pans full of the earth to the waterside, where, after submerging until the lighter earth had floated off, they slopped the remainder over the side with a peculiar twisting, whirling motion, leaving at last only the black sand—and the gold! These pan miners were in the great majority. But one group of four men was doing business on a larger scale. They had constructed what looked like a very shallow baby-cradle on rockers into which they poured their earth and water. By rocking the cradle violently but steadily, they spilled the mud over the sides. Cleats had been nailed in the bottom to catch the black sand.

We wandered about here and there, looking with all our eyes. The miners were very busy and silent, but quite friendly, and allowed us to examine as much as we pleased the results of their operations. In the pots and cradles the yellow flake gold glittered plainly, contrasting with the black sand. In the pans, however, the residue spread out fan-shaped along the angle between the bottom and the side, and at the apex the gold lay heavy and beautiful all by itself. The men were generally bearded, tanned with working in this blinding sun, and plastered liberally with the red earth. We saw some queer sights, however; as when we came across a jolly pair dressed in what were the remains of ultra-fashionable garments up to and including plug hats! At one side working some distance from the stream were small groups of native Californians or Mexicans. They did not trouble to carry the earth all the way to the river; but, after screening it roughly, tossed it into the air above a canvas, thus winnowing out the heavier pay dirt. [Footnote: Pay dirt: dirt that has gold enough in it to pay for working it.] I thought this must be very disagreeable.

As we wandered about here and there among all these men so busily engaged, and with our own eyes saw pan after pan show gold, actual metallic guaranteed gold, such as rings and watches and money are made of, a growing excitement possessed us, the excitement of a small boy with a new and untried gun. We wanted to get at it ourselves. Only we did not know how.

Finally Yank approached one of the busy miners.

"Stranger," said he, "we're new to this. Maybe you can tell us where we can dig a little of this gold ourselves."

The man straightened his back, to exhibit a roving humorous blue eye, with which he examined Yank from top to toe.

"If," said he, "it wasn't for that eighteen-foot cannon you carry over your left arm, and a cold gray pair of eyes you carry in your head, I'd direct you up the sidehill yonder, and watch you sweat. As it is, you can work anywhere anybody else isn't working. Start in!"

"Can we dig next to you, then?" asked Yank, nodding at an unbroken piece of ground just upstream.

The miner clambered carefully out of his waist-deep trench, searched his pockets, produced a pipe and tobacco. After lighting this he made Yank a low bow.

"Thanks for the compliment; but I warn you, this claim of mine is not very rich. I'm thinking of trying somewhere else."

"Don't you get any gold?"

"Oh, a few ounces a day."

"That suits me for a beginning," said Yank decidedly. "Come on boys!"

The miner hopped back into his hole, only to stick his head out again for the purpose of telling us:

"Mind you keep fifteen feet away!"

With eager hands we slipped a pick and shovels from beneath the pack ropes, undid our iron bucket, and without further delay commenced feverishly to dig.


[Footnote: Where do you imagine this scene is laid? Why was the miner willing to admit the newcomers? What success do you think they had? Note the simplicity of the style and the diction. Can you tell anything about the first rush of gold seekers to California? Read the novel, "Gold," from which this selection is taken. You will find it very interesting.]

Louise de la Ramee