The Gold Trail

Author: Stewart Edward White

We loaded our pack-horses, and set off next morning early on the trail up the American River. At last, it seemed to us, we were really under way; as though our long journeyings and many experiences had been but a preparation for this start. Our spirits were high, and we laughed and joked and sang extravagantly. Even Yank woke up and acted like a frisky colt. Such early wayfarers as we met, we hailed with shouts and chaffing; nor were we in the least abashed by an occasional surly response, or the not infrequent attempts to discourage our hopes. For when one man said there was no gold; another was as confident that the diggings were not even scratched.

The morning was a very fine one; a little chilly, with a thin white mist hanging low along the ground. This the sun soon dissipated. The birds sang everywhere. We trudged along the dusty road merrily.

Every little while we stopped to readjust the burdens to our animals. A mountaineer had showed us how to lash them on, but our skill at that sort of thing was miner’s, and the packs would not hold. We had to do them one at a time, using the packed animal as a pattern from which to copy the hitch on the other. In this painful manner 149 we learned the Squaw Hitch, which, for a long time, was to be the extent of our knowledge. However, we got on well enough, and mounted steadily by the turns and twists of an awful road, following the general course of the river below us.

On the hills grew high brush, some of it very beautiful. The buckthorn, for example, was just coming out; and the dogwood, and the mountain laurel. At first these clumps of bush were few and scattered; and the surface of the hills, carpeted with short grass, rolled gently away, or broke in stone dikes and outcrops. Then later, as we mounted, they drew together until they covered the mountainsides completely, save where oaks and madrone kept clear some space for themselves. After a time we began to see a scrubby long-needled pine thrusting its head here and there above the undergrowth. That was as far as we got that day. In the hollow of a ravine we found a tiny rill of water, and there we camped. Johnny offered some slight objections at first. It was only two o’clock of the afternoon, the trees were scrubby, the soil dusty, the place generally uncomfortable. But Yank shook his head.

“If we knew how they played this game, it might be all right to go ahead. But we don’t,” said he. “I’ve been noticing this trail pretty close; and I ain’t seen much water except in the river; and that’s an awful ways down. Maybe we’ll find some water over the next hill, and maybe we won’t. But we know there’s water here. Then there’s the question of hoss thieves. McClellan strikes me as a man to be believed. I don’t know how they act; but you bet no hoss thief gets off with my hoss and me watchin’. 150 But at night it’s different, I don’t know how they do things. But I do know that if we tie our hosses next us, they won’t be stolen. And that’s what I aim to do. But if we do that, we got to give them a chance to eat, hain’t we? So we’ll let them feed the rest of the afternoon, and we’ll tie em up to-night.”

This was much talk for Yank. In fact, the only time that taciturn individual ever would open up was in explanation of or argument about some expedient of wilderness life or travel. It sounded entirely logical. So we made camp.

Yank turned the two horses out into a grass meadow, and sat, his back against an oak tree, smoking his pipe and watching them. Johnny and I unrolled the beds, sorted out the simple cooking utensils, and started to cook. Occasional travellers on the road just above us shouted out friendly greetings. They were a miscellaneous lot. Most were headed toward the mountains. These journeyed in various ways. Some walked afoot and unencumbered, some carried apparently all their belongings on their backs, one outfit comprising three men had three saddle horses and four packs–a princely caravan. One of the cargadores’ pack-trains went up the road enveloped in a thick cloud of dust–twenty or thirty pack-mules and four men on horseback herding them forward. A white mare, unharnessed save for a clanging bell, led the way; and all the mules followed her slavishly, the nose of one touching the tail of the other, as is the mule’s besotted fashion. They were gay little animals, with silver buttons on their harness, and yellow 151 sheepskin linings to their saddles. They carried a great variety of all sorts of things; and at the freighting rates quoted to us must have made money for their owners. Their drivers were a picturesque quartette in sombreros, wide sashes, and flowing garments. They sat their animals with a graceful careless ease beautiful to behold.

Near sundown two horsemen turned off the trail and rode down to our little trickle of water. When they drew near we recognized in one of them Don Gaspar Martinez. He wore still his gorgeous apparel of the day before, with only the addition of a pair of heavy silver ornamented spurs on his heels, and a brace of pistols in his sash. His horse, a magnificent chestnut, was harnessed in equal gorgeousness, with silvered broad bit, silver chains jangling therefrom, a plaited rawhide bridle and reins, a carved leather, high-pommelled saddle, also silver ornamented, and a bright coloured, woven saddle blanket beneath. The animal stepped daintily and proudly, lifting his little feet and planting them among the stones as though fastidiously. The man who rode with Don Gaspar was evidently of a lower class. He was, however, a straight handsome young fellow enough, with a dark clear complexion, a small moustache, and a pleasant smile. His dress and accoutrements were on the same general order as those of Don Gaspar, but of quieter colour and more serviceable material. His horse, however, was of the same high-bred type. A third animal followed, unled, packed with two cowhide boxes.

The Spaniard rode up to us and saluted courteously; then his eye lit with recognition.

152“Ah,” said he, “the good friends of our Capitan Sutter! This is to be well met. If it is not too much I would beg the favour of to camp.”

“By all means, Don Gaspar,” said Johnny rising. “The pleasure is of course our own.”

Again saluting us, Don Gaspar and his companion withdrew a short distance up the little meadow. There the Spaniard sat down beneath a bush and proceeded to smoke a cigaretto, while his companion unsaddled the horses, turned them loose to graze, stacked up their saddles, and made simple camping arrangements.

“Old Plush Pants doesn’t intend to do any work if he catches sight of it first,” observed Johnny.

“Probably the other man is a servant?” I suggested.

“More likely a sort of dependent,” amended Johnny. “They run a kind of patriarchal establishment, I’ve been told.”

“Don’t use them big words, Johnny,” complained Yank, coming up with the horses.

“I meant they make the poor relations and kid brothers do the hustling,” said Johnny.

“Now I understand you,” said Yank. “I wish I could see what they do with their hosses nights. I bet they know how. And if I was a hoss thief, I’d surely take a long chance for that chestnut gelding.”

“You might wander over later and find out,” I suggested.

“And get my system full of lead–sure,” said Yank.

The two camps did not exchange visits. We caught the flicker of their little fire; but we were really too tired 153 to be curious, and we turned in early, our two animals tied fast to small trees at our feet.

The next day lifted us into the mountains. Big green peaks across which hung a bluish haze showed themselves between the hills. The latter were more precipitous; and the brush had now given way to pines of better size and quality than those seen lower down. The river foamed over rapids or ran darkling in pools and stretches. Along the roadside, rarely, we came upon rough-looking log cabins, or shacks of canvas, or tents. The owners were not at home. We thought them miners; but in the light of subsequent knowledge I believe that unlikely–the diggings were farther in.

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 about 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 154 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 doubled 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 155 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 débris. 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.

156We 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. I thought this must be very disagreeable.

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