The newest Coen brothers movie, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, is an anthology film that draws heavily from two sources: Hollywood westerns—including the long-abandoned singing cowboy genre—and the 19th and early 20th century adventure stories. As a framing device, a hand turns the pages of a beautifully illustrated 19th century short story collection between chapters. Ostensibly published by “Mike Zoss & Sons” in 1873, the fictional book The Ballad of Buster Scruggs And Other Tales of the American Frontier has no credited author for any of its six stories. But two of the film’s chapters are adaptations of works that do have an author: “All Gold Canyon,” which is based on a 1904 short story by Jack London of the same title, and “The Gal Who Got Rattled,” an adaptation of Stewart Edward White’s 1901 short story, “The Girl Who Got Rattled.” Both stories were first published in The Century Magazine. Please note that both spoilers and late 19th century ideas about race (i.e., racist ones) follow.
The Coens stayed very close to the text of Jack London’s “All Gold Canyon” for the chapter of the film in which Tom Waits plays a gold prospector, in marked contrast to their loose treatment of “The Girl Who Got Rattled.” There are three notable changes. First, the Coens added an owl for Waits to interact with in the otherwise deserted wilderness, embodying the sense from the story’s opening and closing passages that nature is being invaded. Just as importantly, the owl’s presence gives Waits someone to talk to on screen. London, who can give readers access to his main character’s thoughts in a way that’s impossible on film, doesn’t face the same narrative challenge—compare the two versions of the moment the prospector realizes he is not alone to see just how much London gains from internal monologue, and how the Coens use its absence to make that moment more jarring—but even still, London gives his prospector a habit of talking to himself for purposes of exposition. That carries over into the film, but the Coens use it a lot less, and the presence of the owl makes it less ridiculous than it might have been. The second change is that a song the prospector sings at the story’s open and close, which in London’s version is written in minstrel dialect, has been changed to the anachronistic but less offensive “Mother Machree” for the film. (Unlike the film’s other chapters, the bookend shots of a hand turning pages in “All Gold Canyon” uses actual text from London’s story, which means a portion of the song made it into the movie anyway.) Finally, London spends a considerable amount of time foreshadowing the arrival of a second character; the Coens dropped this entirely, which makes the chapter’s climax more of a nasty surprise.
Here’s Jack London’s “All Gold Canyon,” first published in The Century Magazine in 1904. You can also read Stewart Edward White’s “The Girl Who Got Rattled” here.
It was the green heart of the canyon, where the walls swerved back from the rigid plan and relieved their harshness of line by making a little sheltered nook and filling it to the brim with sweetness and roundness and softness. Here all things rested. Even the narrow stream ceased its turbulent down-rush long enough to form a quiet pool. Knee-deep in the water, with drooping head and half-shut eyes, drowsed a red-coated, many-antlered buck.
On one side, beginning at the very lip of the pool, was a tiny meadow, a cool, resilient surface of green that extended to the base of the frowning wall. Beyond the pool a gentle slope of earth ran up and up to meet the opposing wall. Fine grass covered the slope—grass that was spangled with flowers, with here and there patches of color, orange and purple and golden. Below, the canyon was shut in. There was no view. The walls leaned together abruptly and the canyon ended in a chaos of rocks, moss-covered and hidden by a green screen of vines and creepers and boughs of trees. Up the canyon rose far hills and peaks, the big foothills, pine-covered and remote. And far beyond, like clouds upon the border of the slay, towered minarets of white, where the Sierra’s eternal snows flashed austerely the blazes of the sun.
There was no dust in the canyon. The leaves and flowers were clean and virginal. The grass was young velvet. Over the pool three cottonwoods sent their scurvy fluffs fluttering down the quiet air. On the slope the blossoms of the wine-wooded manzanita filled the air with springtime odors, while the leaves, wise with experience, were already beginning their vertical twist against the coming aridity of summer. In the open spaces on the slope, beyond the farthest shadow-reach of the manzanita, poised the mariposa lilies, like so many flights of jeweled moths suddenly arrested and on the verge of trembling into flight again. Here and there that woods harlequin, the madrone, permitting itself to be caught in the act of changing its pea-green trunk to madder-red, breathed its fragrance into the air from great clusters of waxen bells. Creamy white were these bells, shaped like lilies-of-the-valley, with the sweetness of perfume that is of the springtime.
There was not a sigh of wind. The air was drowsy with its weight of perfume. It was a sweetness that would have been cloying had the air been heavy and humid. But the air was sharp and thin. It was as starlight transmuted into atmosphere, shot through and warmed by sunshine, and flower-drenched with sweetness.
An occasional butterfly drifted in and out through the patches of light and shade. And from all about rose the low and sleepy hum of mountain bees—feasting Sybarites that jostled one another good-naturedly at the board, nor found time for rough discourtesy. So quietly did the little stream drip and ripple its way through the canyon that it spoke only in faint and occasional gurgles. The voice of the stream was as a drowsy whisper, ever interrupted by dozings and silences, ever lifted again in the awakenings.
The motion of all things was a drifting in the heart of the canyon. Sunshine and butterflies drifted in and out among the trees. The hum of the bees and the whisper of the stream were a drifting of sound. And the drifting sound and drifting color seemed to weave together in the making of a delicate and intangible fabric which was the spirit of the place. It was a spirit of peace that was not of death, but of smooth-pulsing life, of quietude that was not silence, of movement that was not action, of repose that was quick with existence without being violent with struggle and travail. The spirit of the place was the spirit of the peace of the living, somnolent with the easement and content of prosperity, and undisturbed by rumors of far wars.
The red-coated, many-antlered buck acknowledged the lordship of the spirit of the place and dozed knee-deep in the cool, shaded pool. There seemed no flies to vex him and he was languid with rest. Sometimes his ears moved when the stream awoke and whispered; but they moved lazily, with, foreknowledge that it was merely the stream grown garrulous at discovery that it had slept.
But there came a time when the buck’s ears lifted and tensed with swift eagerness for sound. His head was turned down the canyon. His sensitive, quivering nostrils scented the air. His eyes could not pierce the green screen through which the stream rippled away, but to his ears came the voice of a man. It was a steady, monotonous, singsong voice. Once the buck heard the harsh clash of metal upon rock. At the sound he snorted with a sudden start that jerked him through the air from water to meadow, and his feet sank into the young velvet, while he pricked his ears and again scented the air. Then he stole across the tiny meadow, pausing once and again to listen, and faded away out of the canyon like a wraith, soft-footed and without sound.
The clash of steel-shod soles against the rocks began to be heard, and the man’s voice grew louder. It was raised in a sort of chant and became distinct with nearness, so that the words could be heard:
“Turn around an’ tu’n yo’ face
Untoe them sweet hills of grace
(D’ pow’rs of sin yo’ am scornin’!).
Look about an’ look aroun’,
Fling yo’ sin-pack on d’ groun’
(Yo’ will meet wid d’ Lord in d’ mornin’!).”
A sound of scrambling accompanied the song, and the spirit of the place fled away on the heels of the red-coated buck. The green screen was burst asunder, and a man peered out at the meadow and the pool and the sloping side-hill. He was a deliberate sort of man. He took in the scene with one embracing glance, then ran his eyes over the details to verify the general impression. Then, and not until then, did he open his mouth in vivid and solemn approval:
“Smoke of life an’ snakes of purgatory! Will you just look at that! Wood an’ water an’ grass an’ a side-hill! A pocket-hunter’s delight an’ a cayuse’s paradise! Cool green for tired eyes! Pink pills for pale people ain’t in it. A secret pasture for prospectors and a resting-place for tired burros, by damn!”
He was a sandy-complexioned man in whose face geniality and humor seemed the salient characteristics. It was a mobile face, quick-changing to inward mood and thought. Thinking was in him a visible process. Ideas chased across his face like wind-flaws across the surface of a lake. His hair, sparse and unkempt of growth, was as indeterminate and colorless as his complexion. It would seem that all the color of his frame had gone into his eyes, for they were startlingly blue. Also, they were laughing and merry eyes, within them much of the naivete and wonder of the child; and yet, in an unassertive way, they contained much of calm self-reliance and strength of purpose founded upon self-experience and experience of the world.
From out the screen of vines and creepers he flung ahead of him a miner’s pick and shovel and gold-pan. Then he crawled out himself into the open. He was clad in faded overalls and black cotton shirt, with hobnailed brogans on his feet, and on his head a hat whose shapelessness and stains advertised the rough usage of wind and rain and sun and camp-smoke. He stood erect, seeing wide-eyed the secrecy of the scene and sensuously inhaling the warm, sweet breath of the canyon-garden through nostrils that dilated and quivered with delight. His eyes narrowed to laughing slits of blue, his face wreathed itself in joy, and his mouth curled in a smile as he cried aloud:
“Jumping dandelions and happy hollyhocks, but that smells good to me! Talk about your attar o’ roses an’ cologne factories! They ain’t in it!”
He had the habit of soliloquy. His quick-changing facial expressions might tell every thought and mood, but the tongue, perforce, ran hard after, repeating, like a second Boswell.
The man lay down on the lip of the pool and drank long and deep of its water. “Tastes good to me,” he murmured, lifting his head and gazing across the pool at the side-hill, while he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. The side-hill attracted his attention. Still lying on his stomach, he studied the hill formation long and carefully. It was a practised eye that traveled up the slope to the crumbling canyon-wall and back and down again to the edge of the pool. He scrambled to his feet and favored the side-hill with a second survey.
“Looks good to me,” he concluded, picking up his pick and shovel and gold-pan.
He crossed the stream below the pool, stepping agilely from stone to stone. Where the sidehill touched the water he dug up a shovelful of dirt and put it into the gold-pan. He squatted down, holding the pan in his two hands, and partly immersing it in the stream. Then he imparted to the pan a deft circular motion that sent the water sluicing in and out through the dirt and gravel. The larger and the lighter particles worked to the surface, and these, by a skilful dipping movement of the pan, he spilled out and over the edge. Occasionally, to expedite matters, he rested the pan and with his fingers raked out the large pebbles and pieces of rock.
The contents of the pan diminished rapidly until only fine dirt and the smallest bits of gravel remained. At this stage he began to work very deliberately and carefully. It was fine washing, and he washed fine and finer, with a keen scrutiny and delicate and fastidious touch. At last the pan seemed empty of everything but water; but with a quick semicircular flirt that sent the water flying over the shallow rim into the stream, he disclosed a layer of black sand on the bottom of the pan. So thin was this layer that it was like a streak of paint. He examined it closely. In the midst of it was a tiny golden speck. He dribbled a little water in over the depressed edge of the pan. With a quick flirt he sent the water sluicing across the bottom, turning the grains of black sand over and over. A second tiny golden speck rewarded his effort.
The washing had now become very fine—fine beyond all need of ordinary placer-mining. He worked the black sand, a small portion at a time, up the shallow rim of the pan. Each small portion he examined sharply, so that his eyes saw every grain of it before he allowed it to slide over the edge and away. Jealously, bit by bit, he let the black sand slip away. A golden speck, no larger than a pin-point, appeared on the rim, and by his manipulation of the riveter it returned to the bottom of the pan. And in such fashion another speck was disclosed, and another. Great was his care of them. Like a shepherd he herded his flock of golden specks so that not one should be lost. At last, of the pan of dirt nothing remained but his golden herd. He counted it, and then, after all his labor, sent it flying out of the pan with one final swirl of water.
But his blue eyes were shining with desire as he rose to his feet. “Seven,” he muttered aloud, asserting the sum of the specks for which he had toiled so hard and which he had so wantonly thrown away. “Seven,” he repeated, with the emphasis of one trying to impress a number on his memory.
He stood still a long while, surveying the hill-side. In his eyes was a curiosity, new-aroused and burning. There was an exultance about his bearing and a keenness like that of a hunting animal catching the fresh scent of game.
He moved down the stream a few steps and took a second panful of dirt.
Again came the careful washing, the jealous herding of the golden specks, and the wantonness with which he sent them flying into the stream when he had counted their number.
“Five,” he muttered, and repeated, “five.”
He could not forbear another survey of the hill before filling the pan farther down the stream. His golden herds diminished. “Four, three, two, two, one,” were his memory-tabulations as he moved down the stream. When but one speck of gold rewarded his washing, he stopped and built a fire of dry twigs. Into this he thrust the gold-pan and burned it till it was blue-black. He held up the pan and examined it critically. Then he nodded approbation. Against such a color-background he could defy the tiniest yellow speck to elude him.
Still moving down the stream, he panned again. A single speck was his reward. A third pan contained no gold at all. Not satisfied with this, he panned three times again, taking his shovels of dirt within a foot of one another. Each pan proved empty of gold, and the fact, instead of discouraging him, seemed to give him satisfaction. His elation increased with each barren washing, until he arose, exclaiming jubilantly:
“If it ain’t the real thing, may God knock off my head with sour apples!”
Returning to where he had started operations, he began to pan up the stream. At first his golden herds increased—increased prodigiously. “Fourteen, eighteen, twenty-one, twenty-six,” ran his memory tabulations. Just above the pool he struck his richest pan—thirty-five colors.
“Almost enough to save,” he remarked regretfully as he allowed the water to sweep them away.
The sun climbed to the top of the sky. The man worked on. Pan by pan, he went up the stream, the tally of results steadily decreasing.
“It’s just booful, the way it peters out,” he exulted when a shovelful of dirt contained no more than a single speck of gold.
And when no specks at all were found in several pans, he straightened up and favored the hillside with a confident glance.
“Ah, ha! Mr. Pocket!” he cried out, as though to an auditor hidden somewhere above him beneath the surface of the slope. “Ah, ha! Mr. Pocket! I’m a-comin’, I’m a-comin’, an’ I’m shorely gwine to get yer! You heah me, Mr. Pocket? I’m gwine to get yer as shore as punkins ain’t cauliflowers!”
He turned and flung a measuring glance at the sun poised above him in the azure of the cloudless sky. Then he went down the canyon, following the line of shovel-holes he had made in filling the pans. He crossed the stream below the pool and disappeared through the green screen. There was little opportunity for the spirit of the place to return with its quietude and repose, for the man’s voice, raised in ragtime song, still dominated the canyon with possession.
After a time, with a greater clashing of steel-shod feet on rock, he returned. The green screen was tremendously agitated. It surged back and forth in the throes of a struggle. There was a loud grating and clanging of metal. The man’s voice leaped to a higher pitch and was sharp with imperativeness. A large body plunged and panted. There was a snapping and ripping and rending, and amid a shower of falling leaves a horse burst through the screen. On its back was a pack, and from this trailed broken vines and torn creepers. The animal gazed with astonished eyes at the scene into which it had been precipitated, then dropped its head to the grass and began contentedly to graze. A second horse scrambled into view, slipping once on the mossy rocks and regaining equilibrium when its hoofs sank into the yielding surface of the meadow. It was riderless, though on its back was a high-horned Mexican saddle, scarred and discolored by long usage.
The man brought up the rear. He threw off pack and saddle, with an eye to camp location, and gave the animals their freedom to graze. He unpacked his food and got out frying-pan and coffee-pot. He gathered an armful of dry wood, and with a few stones made a place for his fire.
“My!” he said, “but I’ve got an appetite. I could scoff iron-filings an’ horseshoe nails an’ thank you kindly, ma’am, for a second helpin’.”
He straightened up, and, while he reached for matches in the pocket of his overalls, his eyes travelled across the pool to the side-hill. His fingers had clutched the match-box, but they relaxed their hold and the hand came out empty. The man wavered perceptibly. He looked at his preparations for cooking and he looked at the hill.
“Guess I’ll take another whack at her,” he concluded, starting to cross the stream.
“They ain’t no sense in it, I know,” he mumbled apologetically. “But keepin’ grub back an hour ain’t goin’ to hurt none, I reckon.”
A few feet back from his first line of test-pans he started a second line. The sun dropped down the western sky, the shadows lengthened, but the man worked on. He began a third line of test-pans. He was cross-cutting the hillside, line by line, as he ascended. The center of each line produced the richest pans, while the ends came where no colors showed in the pan. And as he ascended the hillside the lines grew perceptibly shorter. The regularity with which their length diminished served to indicate that somewhere up the slope the last line would be so short as to have scarcely length at all, and that beyond could come only a point. The design was growing into an inverted “V.” The converging sides of this “V” marked the boundaries of the gold-bearing dirt.
The apex of the “V” was evidently the man’s goal. Often he ran his eye along the converging sides and on up the hill, trying to divine the apex, the point where the gold-bearing dirt must cease. Here resided “Mr. Pocket”—for so the man familiarly addressed the imaginary point above him on the slope, crying out:
“Come down out o’ that, Mr. Pocket! Be right smart an’ agreeable, an’ come down!”
“All right,” he would add later, in a voice resigned to determination. “All right, Mr. Pocket. It’s plain to me I got to come right up an’ snatch you out bald-headed. An’ I’ll do it! I’ll do it!” he would threaten still later.
Each pan he carried down to the water to wash, and as he went higher up the hill the pans grew richer, until he began to save the gold in an empty baking-powder can which he carried carelessly in his hip-pocket. So engrossed was he in his toil that he did not notice the long twilight of oncoming night. It was not until he tried vainly to see the gold colors in the bottom of the pan that he realized the passage of time. He straightened up abruptly. An expression of whimsical wonderment and awe overspread his face as he drawled:
“Gosh darn my buttons! if I didn’t plumb forget dinner!”
He stumbled across the stream in the darkness and lighted his long-delayed fire. Flapjacks and bacon and warmed-over beans constituted his supper. Then he smoked a pipe by the smoldering coals, listening to the night noises and watching the moonlight stream through the canyon. After that he unrolled his bed, took off his heavy shoes, and pulled the blankets up to his chin. His face showed white in the moonlight, like the face of a corpse. But it was a corpse that knew its resurrection, for the man rose suddenly on one elbow and gazed across at his hillside.
“Good night, Mr. Pocket,” he called sleepily. “Good night.”
He slept through the early gray of morning until the direct rays of the sun smote his closed eyelids, when he awoke with a start and looked about him until he had established the continuity of his existence and identified his present self with the days previously lived.
To dress, he had merely to buckle on his shoes. He glanced at his fireplace and at his hillside, wavered, but fought down the temptation and started the fire.
“Keep yer shirt on, Bill; keep yer shirt on,” he admonished himself. “What’s the good of rushin’? No use in gettin’ all het up an’ sweaty. Mr. Pocket’ll wait for you. He ain’t a-runnin’ away before you can get yer breakfast. Now, what you want, Bill, is something fresh in yer bill o’ fare. So it’s up to you to go an’ get it.”
He cut a short pole at the water’s edge and drew from one of his pockets a bit of line and a draggled fly that had once been a royal coachman.
“Mebbe they’ll bite in the early morning,” he muttered, as he made his first cast into the pool. And a moment later he was gleefully crying: “What’d I tell you, eh? What’d I tell you?”
He had no reel, nor any inclination to waste time, and by main strength, and swiftly, he drew out of the water a flashing ten-inch trout. Three more, caught in rapid succession, furnished his breakfast. When he came to the stepping-stones on his way to his hillside, he was struck by a sudden thought, and paused.
“I’d just better take a hike down-stream a ways,” he said. “There’s no tellin’ what cuss may be snoopin’ around.”
But he crossed over on the stones, and with a “I really oughter take that hike,” the need of the precaution passed out of his mind and he fell to work.
At nightfall he straightened up. The small of his back was stiff from stooping toil, and as he put his hand behind him to soothe the protesting muscles, he said:
“Now what d’ye think of that, by damn? I clean forgot my dinner again! If I don’t watch out, I’ll sure be degeneratin’ into a two-meal-a-day crank.”
“Pockets is the damnedest things I ever see for makin’ a man absent-minded,” he communed that night, as he crawled into his blankets. Nor did he forget to call up the hillside, “Good night, Mr. Pocket! Good night!”
Rising with the sun, and snatching a hasty breakfast, he was early at work. A fever seemed to be growing in him, nor did the increasing richness of the test-pans allay this fever. There was a flush in his cheek other than that made by the heat of the sun, and he was oblivious to fatigue and the passage of time. When he filled a pan with dirt, he ran down the hill to wash it; nor could he forbear running up the hill again, panting and stumbling profanely, to refill the pan.
He was now a hundred yards from the water, and the inverted “V” was assuming definite proportions. The width of the pay-dirt steadily decreased, and the man extended in his mind’s eye the sides of the “V” to their meeting-place far up the hill. This was his goal, the apex of the “V,” and he panned many times to locate it.
“Just about two yards above that manzanita bush an’ a yard to the right,” he finally concluded.
Then the temptation seized him. “As plain as the nose on your face,” he said, as he abandoned his laborious cross-cutting and climbed to the indicated apex. He filled a pan and carried it down the hill to wash. It contained no trace of gold. He dug deep, and he dug shallow, filling and washing a dozen pans, and was unrewarded even by the tiniest golden speck. He was enraged at having yielded to the temptation, and cursed himself blasphemously and pridelessly. Then he went down the hill and took up the cross-cutting.
“Slow an’ certain, Bill; slow an’ certain,” he crooned. “Short-cuts to fortune ain’t in your line, an’ it’s about time you know it. Get wise, Bill; get wise. Slow an’ certain’s the only hand you can play; so go to it, an’ keep to it, too.”
As the cross-cuts decreased, showing that the sides of the “V” were converging, the depth of the “V” increased. The gold-trace was dipping into the hill. It was only at thirty inches beneath the surface that he could get colors in his pan. The dirt he found at twenty-five inches from the surface, and at thirty-five inches, yielded barren pans. At the base of the “V,” by the water’s edge, he had found the gold colors at the grass roots. The higher he went up the hill, the deeper the gold dipped.
To dig a hole three feet deep in order to get one test-pan was a task of no mean magnitude; while between the man and the apex intervened an untold number of such holes to be. “An’ there’s no tellin’ how much deeper it’ll pitch,” he sighed, in a moment’s pause, while his fingers soothed his aching back.
Feverish with desire, with aching back and stiffening muscles, with pick and shovel gouging and mauling the soft brown earth, the man toiled up the hill. Before him was the smooth slope, spangled with flowers and made sweet with their breath. Behind him was devastation. It looked like some terrible eruption breaking out on the smooth skin of the hill. His slow progress was like that of a slug, befouling beauty with a monstrous trail.
Though the dipping gold-trace increased the man’s work, he found consolation in the increasing richness of the pans. Twenty cents, thirty cents, fifty cents, sixty cents, were the values of the gold found in the pans, and at nightfall he washed his banner pan, which gave him a dollar’s worth of gold-dust from a shovelful of dirt.
“I’ll just bet it’s my luck to have some inquisitive cuss come buttin’ in here on my pasture,” he mumbled sleepily that night as he pulled the blankets up to his chin.
Suddenly he sat upright. “Bill!” he called sharply. “Now, listen to me, Bill; d’ye hear! It’s up to you, to-morrow mornin’, to mosey round an’ see what you can see. Understand? Tomorrow morning, an’ don’t you forget it!”
He yawned and glanced across at his side-hill. “Good night, Mr. Pocket,” he called.
In the morning he stole a march on the sun, for he had finished breakfast when its first rays caught him, and he was climbing the wall of the canyon where it crumbled away and gave footing. From the outlook at the top he found himself in the midst of loneliness. As far as he could see, chain after chain of mountains heaved themselves into his vision. To the east his eyes, leaping the miles between range and range and between many ranges, brought up at last against the white-peaked Sierras—the main crest, where the backbone of the Western world reared itself against the sky. To the north and south he could see more distinctly the cross-systems that broke through the main trend of the sea of mountains. To the west the ranges fell away, one behind the other, diminishing and fading into the gentle foothills that, in turn, descended into the great valley which he could not see.
And in all that mighty sweep of earth he saw no sign of man nor of the handiwork of man—save only the torn bosom of the hillside at his feet. The man looked long and carefully. Once, far down his own canyon, he thought he saw in the air a faint hint of smoke. He looked again and decided that it was the purple haze of the hills made dark by aconvolution of the canyon wall at its back.
“Hey, you, Mr. Pocket!” he called down into the canyon. “Stand out from under! I’m a-comin’, Mr. Pocket! I’m a-comin’!”
The heavy brogans on the man’s feet made him appear clumsy-footed, but he swung down from the giddy height as lightly and airily as a mountain goat. A rock, turning under his foot on the edge of the precipice, did not disconcert him. He seemed to know the precise time required for the turn to culminate in disaster, and in the meantime he utilized the false footing itself for the momentary earth-contact necessary to carry him on into safety. Where the earth sloped so steeply that it was impossible to stand for a second upright, the man did not hesitate. His foot pressed the impossible surface for but a fraction of the fatal second and gave him the bound that carried him onward. Again, where even the fraction of a second’s footing was out of the question, he would swing his body past by a moment’s hand-grip on a jutting knob of rock, a crevice, or a precariously rooted shrub. At last, with a wild leap and yell, he exchanged the face of the wall for an earth-slide and finished the descent in the midst of several tons of sliding earth and gravel.
His first pan of the morning washed out over two dollars in coarse gold. It was from the center of the “V.” To either side the diminution in the values of the pans was swift. His lines of crosscutting holes were growing very short. The converging sides of the inverted “V” were only a few yards apart. Their meeting-point was only a few yards above him. But the pay-streak was dipping deeper and deeper into the earth. By early afternoon he was sinking the test-holes five feet before the pans could show the gold-trace.
For that matter, the gold-trace had become something more than a trace; it was a placer mine in itself, and the man resolved to come back after he had found the pocket and work over the ground. But the increasing richness of the pans began to worry him. By late afternoon the worth of the pans had grown to three and four dollars. The man scratched his head perplexedly and looked a few feet up the hill at the manzanita bush that marked approximately the apex of the “V.” He nodded his head and said oracularly:
“It’s one o’ two things, Bill; one o’ two things. Either Mr. Pocket’s spilled himself all out an’ down the hill, or else Mr. Pocket’s that damned rich you maybe won’t be able to carry him all away with you. And that’d be hell, wouldn’t it, now?” He chuckled at contemplation of so pleasant a dilemma.
Nightfall found him by the edge of the stream his eyes wrestling with the gathering darkness over the washing of a five-dollar pan.
“Wisht I had an electric light to go on working.” he said.
He found sleep difficult that night. Many times he composed himself and closed his eyes for slumber to overtake him; but his blood pounded with too strong desire, and as many times his eyes opened and he murmured wearily, “Wisht it was sun-up.”
Sleep came to him in the end, but his eyes were open with the first paling of the stars, and the gray of dawn caught him with breakfast finished and climbing the hillside in the direction of the secret abiding-place of Mr. Pocket.
The first cross-cut the man made, there was space for only three holes, so narrow had become the pay-streak and so close was he to the fountainhead of the golden stream he had been following for four days.
“Be ca’m, Bill; be ca’m,” he admonished himself, as he broke ground for the final hole where the sides of the “V” had at last come together in a point.
“I’ve got the almighty cinch on you, Mr. Pocket, an’ you can’t lose me,” he said many times as he sank the hole deeper and deeper.
Four feet, five feet, six feet, he dug his way down into the earth. The digging grew harder. His pick grated on broken rock. He examined the rock. “Rotten quartz,” was his conclusion as, with the shovel, he cleared the bottom of the hole of loose dirt. He attacked the crumbling quartz with the pick, bursting the disintegrating rock asunder with every stroke.
He thrust his shovel into the loose mass. His eye caught a gleam of yellow. He dropped the shovel and squatted suddenly on his heels. As a farmer rubs the clinging earth from fresh-dug potatoes, so the man, a piece of rotten quartz held in both hands, rubbed the dirt away.
“Sufferin’ Sardanopolis!” he cried. “Lumps an’ chunks of it! Lumps an’ chunks of it!”
It was only half rock he held in his hand. The other half was virgin gold. He dropped it into his pan and examined another piece. Little yellow was to be seen, but with his strong fingers he crumbled the rotten quartz away till both hands were filled with glowing yellow. He rubbed the dirt away from fragment after fragment, tossing them into the gold-pan. It was a treasure-hole. So much had the quartz rotted away that there was less of it than there was of gold. Now and again he found a piece to which no rock clung–a piece that was all gold. A chunk, where the pick had laid open the heart of the gold, glittered like ahandful of yellow jewels, and he cocked his head at it and slowly turned it around and over to observe the rich play of the light upon it.
“Talk about yer Too Much Gold diggin’s!” the man snorted contemptuously. “Why, this diggin’ ’d make it look like thirty cents. This diggin’ is All Gold. An’ right here an’ now I name this yere canyon ‘All Gold Canyon,’ b’ gosh!”
Still squatting on his heels, he continued examining the fragments and tossing them into the pan. Suddenly there came to him a premonition of danger. It seemed a shadow had fallen upon him. But there was no shadow. His heart had given a great jump up into his throat and was choking him. Then his blood slowly chilled and he felt the sweat of his shirt cold against his flesh.
He did not spring up nor look around. He did not move. He was considering the nature of the premonition he had received, trying to locate the source of the mysterious force that had warned him, striving to sense the imperative presence of the unseen thing that threatened him. There is an aura of things hostile, made manifest by messengers refined for the senses to know; and this aura he felt, but knew not how he felt it. His was the feeling as when a cloud passes over the sun. It seemed that between him and life had passed something dark and smothering and menacing; a gloom, as it were, that swallowed up life and made for death—his death.
Every force of his being impelled him to spring up and confront the unseen danger, but his soul dominated the panic, and he remained squatting on his heels, in his hands a chunk of gold. He did not dare to look around, but he knew by now that there was something behind him and above him. He made believe to be interested in the gold in his hand. He examined it critically, turned it over and over, and rubbed the dirt from it. And all the time he knew that something behind him was looking at the gold over his shoulder.
Still feigning interest in the chunk of gold in his hand, he listened intently and he heard the breathing of the thing behind him. His eyes searched the ground in front of him for a weapon, but they saw only the uprooted gold, worthless to him now in his extremity. There was his pick, a handy weapon on occasion; but this was not such an occasion. The man realized his predicament. He was in a narrow hole that was seven feet deep. His head did not come to the surface of the ground. He was in a trap.
He remained squatting on his heels. He was quite cool and collected; but his mind, considering every factor, showed him only his helplessness. He continued rubbing the dirt from the quartz fragments and throwing the gold into the pan. There was nothing else for him to do. Yet he knew that he would have to rise up, sooner or later, and face the danger that breathed at his back.
The minutes passed, and with the passage of each minute he knew that by so much he was nearer the time when he must stand up, or else—and his wet shirt went cold against his flesh again at the thought—or else he might receive death as he stooped there over his treasure.
Still he squatted on his heels, rubbing dirt from gold and debating in just what manner he should rise up. He might rise up with a rush and claw his way out of the hole to meet whatever threatened on the even footing above ground. Or he might rise up slowly and carelessly, and feign casually to discover the thing that breathed at his back. His instinct and every fighting fibre of his body favored the mad, clawing rush to the surface. His intellect, and the craft thereof, favored the slow and cautious meeting with the thing that menaced and which he could not see. And while he debated, a loud, crashing noise burst on his ear. At the same instant he received a stunning blow on the left side of the back, and from the point of impact felt a rush of flame through his flesh. He sprang up in the air, but halfway to his feet collapsed. His body crumpled in like a leaf withered in sudden heat, and he came down, his chest across his pan of gold, his face in the dirt and rock, his legs tangled and twisted because of the restricted space at the bottom of the hole. His legs twitched convulsively several times. His body was shaken as with a mighty ague. There was a slow expansion of the lungs, accompanied by a deep sigh. Then the air was slowly, very slowly, exhaled, and his body as slowly flattened itself down into inertness.
Above, revolver in hand, a man was peering down over the edge of the hole. He peered for a long time at the prone and motionless body beneath him. After a while the stranger sat down on the edge of the hole so that he could see into it, and rested the revolver on his knee. Reaching his hand into a pocket, he drew out a wisp of brown paper. Into this he dropped a few crumbs of tobacco. The combination became a cigarette, brown and squat, with the ends turned in. Not once did he take his eyes from the body at the bottom of the hole. He lighted the cigarette and drew its smoke into his lungs with a caressing intake of the breath. He smoked slowly. Once the cigarette went out and he relighted it. And all the while he studied the body beneath him.
In the end he tossed the cigarette stub away and rose to his feet. He moved to the edge of the hole. Spanning it, a hand resting on each edge, and with the revolver still in the right hand, he muscled his body down into the hole. While his feet were yet a yard from the bottom he released his hands and dropped down.
At the instant his feet struck bottom he saw the pocket-miner’s arm leap out, and his own legs knew a swift, jerking grip that overthrew him. In the nature of the jump his revolver-hand was above his head. Swiftly as the grip had flashed about his legs, just as swiftly he brought the revolver down. He was still in the air, his fall in process of completion, when he pulled the trigger. The explosion was deafening in the confined space. The smoke filled the hole so that he could see nothing. He struck the bottom on his back, and like a cat’s the pocket-miner’s body was on top of him. Even as the miner’s body passed on top, the stranger crooked in his right arm to fire; and even in that instant the miner, with a quick thrust of elbow, struck his wrist. The muzzle was thrown up and the bullet thudded into the dirt of the side of the hole.
The next instant the stranger felt the miner’s hand grip his wrist. The struggle was now for the revolver. Each man strove to turn it against the other’s body. The smoke in the hole was clearing. The stranger, lying on his back, was beginning to see dimly. But suddenly he was blinded by a handful of dirt deliberately flung into his eyes by his antagonist. In that moment of shock his grip on the revolver was broken. In the next moment he felt a smashing darkness descend upon his brain, and in the midst of the darkness even the darkness ceased.
But the pocket-miner fired again and again, until the revolver was empty. Then he tossed it from him and, breathing heavily, sat down on the dead man’s legs.
The miner was sobbing and struggling for breath. “Measly skunk!” he panted; “a-campin’ on my trail an’ lettin’ me do the work, an’ then shootin’ me in the back!”
He was half crying from anger and exhaustion. He peered at the face of the dead man. It was sprinkled with loose dirt and gravel, and it was difficult to distinguish the features.
“Never laid eyes on him before,” the miner concluded his scrutiny. “Just a common an’ ordinary thief, damn him! An’ he shot me in the back! He shot me in the back!”
He opened his shirt and felt himself, front and back, on his left side.
“Went clean through, and no harm done!” he cried jubilantly. “I’ll bet he aimed right all right, but he drew the gun over when he pulled the trigger—the cuss! But I fixed ’m! Oh, I fixed ’m!”
His fingers were investigating the bullet-hole in his side, and a shade of regret passed over his face. “It’s goin’ to be stiffer’n hell,” he said. “An’ it’s up to me to get mended an’ get out o’ here.”
He crawled out of the hole and went down the hill to his camp. Half an hour later he returned, leading his pack-horse. His open shirt disclosedthe rude bandages with which he had dressed his wound. He was slow and awkward with his left-hand movements, but that did not prevent his using the arm.
The bight of the pack-rope under the dead man’s shoulders enabled him to heave the body out of the hole. Then he set to work gathering up his gold. He worked steadily for several hours, pausing often to rest his stiffening shoulder and to exclaim:
“He shot me in the back, the measly skunk! He shot me in the back!”
When his treasure was quite cleaned up and wrapped securely into a number of blanket-covered parcels, he made an estimate of its value.
“Four hundred pounds, or I’m a Hottentot,” he concluded. “Say two hundred in quartz an’ dirt–that leaves two hundred pounds of gold. Bill! Wake up! Two hundred pounds of gold! Forty thousand dollars! An’ it’s yourn—all yourn!”
He scratched his head delightedly and his fingers blundered into an unfamiliar groove. They quested along it for several inches. It was a crease through his scalp where the second bullet had ploughed.
He walked angrily over to the dead man.
“You would, would you?” he bullied. “You would, eh? Well, I fixed you good an’ plenty, an’ I’ll give you decent burial, too. That’s more’n you’d have done for me.”
He dragged the body to the edge of the hole and toppled it in. It struck the bottom with a dull crash, on its side, the face twisted up to the light. The miner peered down at it.
“An’ you shot me in the back!” he said accusingly.
With pick and shovel he filled the hole. Then he loaded the gold on his horse. It was too great a load for the animal, and when he had gained his camp he transferred part of it to his saddle-horse. Even so, he was compelled to abandon a portion of his outfit—pick and shovel and gold-pan, extra food and cooking utensils, and divers odds and ends.
The sun was at the zenith when the man forced the horses at the screen of vines and creepers. To climb the huge boulders the animals were compelled to uprear and struggle blindly through the tangled mass of vegetation. Once the saddle-horse fell heavily and the man removed the pack to get the animal on its feet. After it started on its way again the man thrust his head out from among the leaves and peered up at the hillside.
“The measly skunk!” he said, and disappeared.
There was a ripping and tearing of vines and boughs. The trees surged back and forth, marking the passage of the animals through the midst of them. There was a clashing of steel-shod hoofs on stone, and now and again an oath or a sharp cry of command. Then the voice of the man was raised in song:—
“Tu’n around an’ tu’n yo’ face
Untoe them sweet hills of grace
(D’ pow’rs of sin yo’ am scornin’!).
Look about an, look aroun’,
Fling yo’ sin-pack on d’ groun’
(Yo’ will meet wid d’ Lord in d’ mornin’!).”
The song grew faint and fainter, and through the silence crept back the spirit of the place. The stream once more drowsed and whispered; the hum of the mountain bees rose sleepily. Down through the perfume-weighted air fluttered the snowy fluffs of the cottonwoods. The butterflies drifted in and out among the trees, and over all blazed the quiet sunshine. Only remained the hoof-marks in the meadow and the torn hillside to mark the boisterous trail of the life that had broken the peace of the place and passed on.
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