That boulder paid them

By and by, an old friend of mine, a miner, came down from one of the
decayed mining camps of Tuolumne, California, and I went back with him.
We lived in a small cabin on a verdant hillside, and there were not five
other cabins in view over the wide expanse of hill and forest. Yet a
flourishing city of two or three thousand population had occupied this
grassy dead solitude during the flush times of twelve or fifteen years
before, and where our cabin stood had once been the heart of the teeming
hive, the centre of the city. When the mines gave out the town fell into
decay, and in a few years wholly disappeared–streets, dwellings, shops,
everything–and left no sign. The grassy slopes were as green and smooth
and desolate of life as if they had never been disturbed. The mere
handful of miners still remaining, had seen the town spring up spread,
grow and flourish in its pride; and they had seen it sicken and die, and
pass away like a dream. With it their hopes had died, and their zest of
life. They had long ago resigned themselves to their exile, and ceased
to correspond with their distant friends or turn longing eyes toward
their early homes. They had accepted banishment, forgotten the world and
been forgotten of the world. They were far from telegraphs and
railroads, and they stood, as it were, in a living grave, dead to the
events that stirred the globe’s great populations, dead to the common
interests of men, isolated and outcast from brotherhood with their kind.
It was the most singular, and almost the most touching and melancholy
exile that fancy can imagine.–One of my associates in this locality, for
two or three months, was a man who had had a university education; but
now for eighteen years he had decayed there by inches, a bearded,
rough-clad, clay-stained miner, and at times, among his sighings and
soliloquizings, he unconsciously interjected vaguely remembered Latin and
Greek sentences–dead and musty tongues, meet vehicles for the thoughts
of one whose dreams were all of the past, whose life was a failure; a
tired man, burdened with the present, and indifferent to the future; a
man without ties, hopes, interests, waiting for rest and the end.

In that one little corner of California is found a species of mining
which is seldom or never mentioned in print. It is called “pocket
mining” and I am not aware that any of it is done outside of that little
corner. The gold is not evenly distributed through the surface dirt, as
in ordinary placer mines, but is collected in little spots, and they are
very wide apart and exceedingly hard to find, but when you do find one
you reap a rich and sudden harvest. There are not now more than twenty
pocket miners in that entire little region. I think I know every one of
them personally. I have known one of them to hunt patiently about the
hill-sides every day for eight months without finding gold enough to make
a snuff-box–his grocery bill running up relentlessly all the time–and
then find a pocket and take out of it two thousand dollars in two dips of
his shovel. I have known him to take out three thousand dollars in two
hours, and go and pay up every cent of his indebtedness, then enter on a
dazzling spree that finished the last of his treasure before the night
was gone. And the next day he bought his groceries on credit as usual,
and shouldered his pan and shovel and went off to the hills hunting
pockets again happy and content. This is the most fascinating of all the
different kinds of mining, and furnishes a very handsome percentage of
victims to the lunatic asylum.

Pocket hunting is an ingenious process. You take a spadeful of earth
from the hill-side and put it in a large tin pan and dissolve and wash it
gradually away till nothing is left but a teaspoonful of fine sediment.
Whatever gold was in that earth has remained, because, being the
heaviest, it has sought the bottom. Among the sediment you will find
half a dozen yellow particles no larger than pin-heads. You are
delighted. You move off to one side and wash another pan. If you find
gold again, you move to one side further, and wash a third pan. If you
find no gold this time, you are delighted again, because you know you are
on the right scent.

You lay an imaginary plan, shaped like a fan, with its handle up the
hill–for just where the end of the handle is, you argue that the rich
deposit lies hidden, whose vagrant grains of gold have escaped and been
washed down the hill, spreading farther and farther apart as they
wandered. And so you proceed up the hill, washing the earth and
narrowing your lines every time the absence of gold in the pan shows that
you are outside the spread of the fan; and at last, twenty yards up the
hill your lines have converged to a point–a single foot from that point
you cannot find any gold. Your breath comes short and quick, you are
feverish with excitement; the dinner-bell may ring its clapper off, you
pay no attention; friends may die, weddings transpire, houses burn down,
they are nothing to you; you sweat and dig and delve with a frantic
interest–and all at once you strike it! Up comes a spadeful of earth
and quartz that is all lovely with soiled lumps and leaves and sprays of
gold. Sometimes that one spadeful is all–$500. Sometimes the nest
contains $10,000, and it takes you three or four days to get it all out.
The pocket-miners tell of one nest that yielded $60,000 and two men
exhausted it in two weeks, and then sold the ground for $10,000 to a
party who never got $300 out of it afterward.

The hogs are good pocket hunters. All the summer they root around the
bushes, and turn up a thousand little piles of dirt, and then the miners
long for the rains; for the rains beat upon these little piles and wash
them down and expose the gold, possibly right over a pocket. Two pockets
were found in this way by the same man in one day. One had $5,000 in it
and the other $8,000. That man could appreciate it, for he hadn’t had a
cent for about a year.

In Tuolumne lived two miners who used to go to the neighboring village in
the afternoon and return every night with household supplies. Part of
the distance they traversed a trail, and nearly always sat down to rest
on a great boulder that lay beside the path. In the course of thirteen
years they had worn that boulder tolerably smooth, sitting on it. By and
by two vagrant Mexicans came along and occupied the seat. They began to
amuse themselves by chipping off flakes from the boulder with a
sledge-hammer. They examined one of these flakes and found it rich with
gold. That boulder paid them $800 afterward. But the aggravating
circumstance was that these “Greasers” knew that there must be more gold
where that boulder came from, and so they went panning up the hill and
found what was probably the richest pocket that region has yet produced.
It took three months to exhaust it, and it yielded $120,000. The two
American miners who used to sit on the boulder are poor yet, and they
take turn about in getting up early in the morning to curse those
Mexicans–and when it comes down to pure ornamental cursing, the native
American is gifted above the sons of men.

I have dwelt at some length upon this matter of pocket mining because it
is a subject that is seldom referred to in print, and therefore I judged
that it would have for the reader that interest which naturally attaches
to novelty.